At 60, a lifelong golfer gets to test himself against Tiger & Co. at PGA Championship
The 102nd PGA Championship this week at TPC Harding Park in a fog bank in San Francisco has a field of 158 golfers for the year’s first major tournament.
Tiger Woods is in it. Two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka is, too. Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm, Jason Day. Justin Rose, Xander Schauffele, Bryson DeChambeau, Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed, Adam Scott, Tommy Fleetwood, Matt Kuchar, Tony Finau.
And Jeff Hart.
He’s 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, 60 years old.
He qualified because the Professional Golfers’ Assn. of America reserves 20 spots for club pros and teachers, usually decided at its annual championship that players get into through local events. This year’s event was supposed to be in April in Austin, Texas. It was moved to July because of coronavirus concerns, then cancelled when cases spiked in the state.
Instead, they went to a points system to award the 20 spots at Harding Park. Hart was in the top 20.
Golf’s enormous number of shots and languid pace make it ideal for wagering throughout a tournament such as this week’s PGA Championship.
He looked at the conditions — cool, foggy, windy, sea level — and the course layout with a 251-yard par 3, 515-yard par 4 and 607-yard par 5. And nearly passed, knowing he’d be hitting woods to greens built to accept short irons, knowing that some guys might blow drives 100 yards past his.
“They hit their 7-irons about where I hit my driver,” says Hart, who is based out of Lomas Santa Fe Country Club in Solana Beach. “If I was playing against these guys with a regular $2 Nassau (golf bet), I’d be asking for four strokes a side. … It’s not a fair fight.”
Then he pinched himself. It’s the PG-freaking-A. Why not?
“I qualified, so might as well,” Hart says. “I’m looking forward to it. Unless I can’t reach the fairways, I’ll be playing. It will be fun. Hopefully, it will be something I look back on as a treasured experience.”
“It’s a little scary on the other hand.”
Hart was never a big hitter, even in his days at Torrey Pines High and USC and while he bounced around the PGA Tour between various stints on mini-tours. The physics of a smaller swing arc with a 5-9 frame and slight build never allowed it. The last time he played a course of this length was Torrey Pines South at the 2011 Farmers Insurance Open, where he shot 41 on the back nine and missed the cut.
He was 50 and “vowed that was the last time I was going to do that.”
He joined the Champions Tour instead, where players are 50-plus and courses are about 1,000 yards shorter, and amassed nearly $2 million in winnings because he made 102 cuts in 107 events. His secret wasn’t length but accuracy, leading the senior tour in fairways hit in 2013 and 2015 and finishing second in 2014 while also ranking near the top in putting and sand saves.
Last year he won the Southern California PGA titles at the both the open and senior levels, something that hadn’t been done in a decade.
“I was playing some good golf, and they picked two shorter courses,” Hart says. “They learned their lesson: Don’t pick a short course, or an old guy might win.”
Now here he is at 7,234-yard Harding Park, where he played once three decades ago well before the course upgrades, where a pair of par 5s will be played as par 4s this week, where giant cypress trees guard doglegs, where Lake Merced lines several holes, where fairways have been narrowed and rough thickened and greens slickened.
He can carry 230 yards — “maybe 235” — with his driver and reach 250 with rollout, and that’s in warm conditions in which the ball flies farther. In five tournaments since the PGA Tour resumed, DeChambeau has hit 29 drives of 350 yards or more and one of 423.
“I never had a lot of clubhead speed to begin with,” Hart says, “and I’ve got less and less speed as the years go by. That’s just the reality. I exercise. I stretch. I do a lot of things to try to keep my body limber, but there’s only so much you can do when arthritis and bone spurs and calcium deposits and all these things start invading your body. It just gets harder and harder to swing the club with any speed, and that’s kind of where I’m at right now.”
And yet …
“I just always liked tournament golf, much more than recreational golf,” he says. “To me, they’re two different things. I like the feeling when a tournament’s coming up, when I’m at a tournament, when I’m playing in a tournament. That excitement and energy and nervousness is kind of an addiction for me.
Justin Thomas won the FedEx St. Jude Invitational on Sunday to take the No. 1 spot in the world for the first time since June 2018.
“I started playing in tournaments when I was 7 years old, and I still enjoy that probably as much today as I ever have. I can’t explain it, other than I like the feeling. That’s what keeps me going, I suppose.”
Hart has retired from teaching. He regularly plays local senior tournaments, winning a one-day event last week at The Crosby Club in Rancho Santa Fe.
Some perspective: He has a daughter who is three years older than Schauffele. He turned pro in 1983, seven years before Koepka was born.
More perspective: On his PGA bio, under musical preferences, he lists Jethro Tull, the Allman Brothers, Les Dudek and Johnny Winter.
“There will be a day soon, I know, that I’m just not going to do it anymore because I can’t play the way I want to play,” Hart says. “That’s not too far off. It’s more physical than mental. My body is kind of giving out on me. To play golf today with the length of the courses, you’ve got to be pretty athletic, pretty mobile, pretty strong — all those things that wane as you get older.
“But for now, I’ll keep trudging along a little longer, if I can.”
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