Dudley Hart’s comeback trail has had more potholes than Hopkins Road.
But the 45-year-old PGA Tour pro who calls Clarence home has reason to hope his myriad of physical issues are a thing of the past.
The debilitating back injury that has necessitated two surgeries and subsequently forced Hart to miss almost all of the past four Tour seasons has healed to the point that he’s once again able to tee it up with the world’s best players.
Hart will be in the field this week at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., his third tournament in the past seven weeks. That’s remarkable, considering prior to that, Hart had been able to play just once on the PGA Tour since undergoing his first spinal fusion surgery in June 2009.
“It’s been a long road back,” Hart said this week by phone from Florida. “I always try to keep things in perspective. There’s a lot bigger issues and a lot bigger problems that I could’ve had than having a bad back and having to have surgery a couple times.
“I’m feeling pretty good. I just have to monitor how much I practice, how much I play, and be really diligent about the exercises that I do every morning. It’s definitely not strenuous workout-type stuff, but it’s stuff that’s all geared to help my hips and my back and keep me as loose as I possibly can be, to get me through each week.”
Hart has made comeback bids before, but none have lasted this long or looked this promising. He first tried to return from surgery that fused the L5-S1 vertebrae at the 2010 Australian Open, but had to withdraw after three rounds. He sat out all of 2011, and next appeared in the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He missed the cut, and it became apparent the first surgery on his back was not enough. He deliberated for a couple months before deciding that a second fusion surgery would be needed, in April 2012, in part to clean up screws that had become misplaced from the first surgery.
It was not until last fall that he was finally able to once again ramp up his practice routine. He traveled to Argentina in late November to play in a PGA Tour Latinoamerica event, and fared well, shooting 12-under 276 over four rounds to finish in a tie for 12th.
“It was kind of a conditioning stint, if you want to call it that,” Hart said. “I went down there and played a four-day event, with a practice round and a pro-am, kind of simulating what I would see in a normal week here. The back held up pretty well. I played reasonably well for not playing in so long. ... It kind of gave me the confidence that my back was going to hold up, and I would start up in January.”
Hart has been granted a major medical extension for this season by the PGA Tour, which allows him to play in 12 tournaments. In those, he must earn $504,284 to maintain his exempt status for the remainder of the season.
Hart missed the cut by nine shots in his first tournament back on Tour – January’s Humana Challenge in La Quinta, Calif., – but bounced back to make the cut at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am earlier this month.
He finished in a tie for 35th at even par, which was actually a disappointment after he headed into the weekend at 5 under, in a tie for sixth place.
“In my mind, my second round was my only really good round,” Hart said. “I grinded it out the other two days, and I really didn’t finish well on Sunday. I made a bad bogey on the last hole. ... I didn’t hit it great that week, but I gained a lot of confidence knowing when my game wasn’t quite right, that I could still kind of hang in there. It wasn’t the week that I wanted, but it was also a stepping stone, is the way I look at it.”
Hart earned $29,139 at Pebble Beach, meaning in his remaining 10 tournaments, he needs to earn $475,145. Underscoring just how important every shot on Tour is, by three-putting the 72nd hole, he dropped out of a tie for 32nd that would have paid nearly $10,000 more.
Still, finishing four rounds on the chilly Monterey Peninsula is an accomplishment in and of itself considering the past four years.
“Any week that I go out and I get through it physically, in my mind, it’s a little bit of a win. I know that may sound crazy, but when you go through a real amount of discomfort trying to play a sport that you love ... playing without any pain is a little bit of a win,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong: I’m expecting to play well. That’s what I’m out here for. But I still need to be a little bit realistic of where I am and where I’ve come from, and try to understand that it may take a little time to get back to where I want to be.”
Staring down a 10-footer for a skin at his home course, the Country Club of Buffalo, is a world away from possibly going toe to toe with Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson – both of whom are in the field this week at the Honda.
“You’ve got to get yourself back in the groove, hitting shots when they count,” Hart said. “No offense to all my buddies who I’ve played with at CCB back home, but you don’t have to get to that same concentration level as you do when you’re trying to beat the best players in the world.
“That is a thing that I gained a lot of confidence from at AT&T. Even though I didn’t hit it great, I kind of willed myself to play reasonably well. That’s a big part of this game. At least for me it always has been. The mental side of the game can really make up for some flaws that you may have on any given day or week on the physical side, so that was encouraging.”
Hart has spent some time the past few weeks working with his dad, Chuck, the former pro at Wanakah Country Club.
“He’s been my teacher my whole life,” Hart said. “He’s given me some real basic, easy things that I’ve worked on. I’m feeling like I’m starting to hit some shots that I’m visualizing, so I’m really encouraged.”
But he’s also realistic. At 45, he knows his best years on Tour are behind him. “I understand I’m not getting any younger. I don’t know two-thirds of the guys on Tour. Most of them, I could be their father,” Hart said. “I’m looking to feel good, but I want to play well, obviously. ... I have to be realistic. I’ve played three events in four years. That’s a stiff hill to climb, just mentally to get back into that mode, which I expected it would be.”
Hart tees off in the first round at 12:05 p.m. Thursday, playing with Daniel Summerhays and Chris Stroud. He should have some good memories on the first tee.
The Honda accounts for one of Hart’s two career Tour victories, in 2000 (the other coming in the 1996 Bell Canadian Open). “I’m trying to keep my expectations in check, but at the same time, I’m a pretty competitive guy and I expect a lot out of myself,” Hart said. “When I enter a tournament, I’m trying to do as well as I can. The first goal is to feel good, but the further on I get in the process, the better I’m going to get physically. I’m just going to keep taking it week by week.”
Hart will return home to Clarence on Monday following the Honda Classic and resume a role he’s become quite familiar with the past four years: taxi driver. He’ll cart his 12-year-old triplets – Ryan, Rachel and Abigail, from rink to rink for a hockey tournament next weekend. “I’ll be doing the dad thing – probably shovel some snow,” he said. “Then I’ll come back down to the good weather.”
Hart plans to be in the field for the Valspar Championship outside Tampa, Fla., March 13-16 – the next step in his comeback journey.