|ESPN.com: Golf||[Print without images]|
In mid-November at the Champions Tour Q-school, Jeff Hart missed earning a full exemption on the senior circuit for 2013 by 2 shots. It was Hart's fourth trip to that tournament since he turned 50 in 2010.
You probably don't know much about this 52-year-old Southern Californian, who played his college golf at USC, but he's the Crash Davis of Q-school. Since turning pro in 1983, the resident of Solana Beach, Calif., has been to a record 16 regular Q-school finals.
Hart must be the holder of one of the least desirable records in sports. If you're lucky, Q-school is a one-time adventure to get to the promised land of the PGA Tour. No one makes a career out of finishing up most seasons in a 108-hole marathon. As a veteran player, it's one of the occasions that you don't mind going completely unnoticed by the media.
When this year's PGA Tour Q-school starts on Wednesday at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., none of the 172 players in the field want to ever again spend their Thanksgiving breaks preparing to play in a tournament for their livelihoods.
On six occasions at Q-school, Hart, a father of two, has felt the joy of making it through to get his card. And he also has been stung over the years by the shot or two that cost him. One year, when he was in the top 10 late in the event, he was disqualified for unknowingly making a bad drop. Yet he has never lost his will to compete in what is arguably the most grueling tournament in the world.
"I have always enjoyed Q-school," said Hart, who finished 47th on the Champions Tour money list this year. "I know a lot of people don't. I used to joke that I would go even if I was exempt on the tour. I have always liked that you could cut the tension with a knife because it was so thick."
Yet for all of Hart's thirst for this intense level of competition, he wields a carefree perspective that hasn't let the pressure of Q-School drive him crazy and away from professional golf.
"I always went into Q-school thinking what I had if I didn't get my card," Hart said. "I have always enjoyed playing in mini-tour events and being at home. People think I'm nuts, but there is something alluring about being home and seeing your kids grow up.
"So I would convince myself that it wasn't that bad if I didn't get my card. So maybe that took off some of the pressure. A lot of guys think of Q-school as all-or-nothing. I see that with guys as they miss year after year. For me I just wanted to play tournament golf, whether it was the Golden State Open or the U.S. Open."
The 2012 Q-school will be the last to award PGA Tour cards. Beginning in 2013, the Q-School will not represent that all-or-nothing for players and a ticket to the big tour that it has been in some form since 1965. In the future, graduates of the school will earn a place on the Web.com Tour. The excitement and suspense of the old Q-school will be captured in the season-ending, four-tournament Web.com Tour finals.
For a journeyman like Hart, who remembers the days before the advent of the Web.com Tour in 1990 when players had to scatter across the U.S. to various mini tours to eke out a living, the changes to Q-school are a difficult pill to swallow.
"It's kind of sad to see it go. It was really fun. You could get the story of the guy in the cart room who gets his card and then wins on the tour. You're not going to have that anymore.
"I don't think the excitement will be there at Q-school for a Web.com tour card. But the tour is pretty smart. I'm sure they know what they are doing. Still, it won't be the same event that I played all those years."
|Jeff Hart finished 47th on the 2012 Champions Tour money list. The 52-year-old, who played collegiately at USC, has been to Q-school a record 16 times but won't be teeing it up this year.|
Hart, who says he probably would have entered regular tour qualifying had there not been a conflict with the Champions Tour Q-school, will be watching the action this week at PGA West. He doesn't profess to have all the answers for how to succeed at the tournament, but he believes that he has a pretty good idea about some of the things that don't work.
"To me getting ready for Q-school is playing tournament golf," he said. "I wanted to be tournament tested. I think that the mistake that a lot of players make is that they think if they work really hard for a month before Q-school on the range, that they will be ready.
"But then when they get on the course they realize it's not about how good you're hitting the ball, but how well you can put up a score."
In November at the Champions Tour Q-School, Hart started the final round at the TPC Eagle Trace in Coral Springs, Fla., in a tie for fourth and inside the top five that earn full cards. A 1-over-par 73 over those last 18 holes knocked him into a tie for 11th. While he has had more Q-school disappointments than most players, he has never become immune to the disappointments.
"It took a few days to brush it off because you go over the final round a thousand times saying that you could have saved a shot here or there," he said.
With just conditional Champions Tour status, he might not get into many tournaments, but he plans to enter Monday qualifiers. And if he doesn't make enough money by the end of the season to be fully exempt, he'll go back to Q-school next fall.
When told that he had the record for most trips to the regular tour finals, Hart wasn't surprised.
"I haven't kept a count of all the years and I wouldn't go around announcing to the world that I hold the record for most Q-school finals," Hart said. "But I did love playing in all of them."