After back injury, Hart finds new faces

Dudley Hart is trying to again earn full status on PGA Tour after a back injury affected three seasons; he finished T-35 at last week's 2014 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

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Much has changed on the PGA Tour landscape since Dudley Hart was last out on a weekly basis. For instance, the younger faces who filled the player-dining tent at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

“Honestly, I didn’t know two-thirds of them,” said Hart, 45, with a laugh. “Maybe that’s why they put me with Joe Durant the first few days. He’s one of the few I know.”

Hart wore a smile, which is a good thing, because for the past few years that simple task has been difficult. When you’ve got serious back issues and you’re unable to take part in the thing that you do for a living, well, that’s not a good thing, yet it was Hart’s world.

At Pebble Beach, Hart was playing for just the second time this year (he missed the cut at the Humana Challenge) and for the third time since 2010. Between the two back surgeries and his wife’s cancer, Hart has had enough off-course realities to cause him to put things in perspective.

He sat out all of 2013, played in only the AT&T in 2012, and was sidelined for 2010-11. His status for 2013-14 is the major medical extension category. Factoring in the $29,139 that he made at Pebble Beach, Hart has 10 tournaments left to earn $475,145 to maintain full status.

See all of senior writer Jim McCabe's pro-tour notes for the week right here.

It’s a big challenge, but the bigger picture is, he’s not only walking and playing, he’s doing it pain-free.

“It’s good,” said Hart, when asked about his back after the fourth round of the AT&T. “We all have our little issues, but I just have to go about doing my (exercises) every morning before I play and at night. I have to limit my practice and how much I play, but I held up OK.”

All of which beats what was going through his mind in 2011, ’12 and all of last year, which was mostly spent driving his kids to their sporting games.

“Did I have doubts? For sure, I did. I definitely had that question (about playing again). But after the second surgery, I felt that much more comfortable, more than I did after the first surgery.”

Hart said that some screws became misplaced with the first spinal fusion, that when he tried to come back at the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, it just didn’t feel right. After months of discussions, Hart opted to have a second fusion, with the biggest reason to clean up those screws.

“When screws get in the vertebrae instead of the muscles, it apparently helps your cause a little bit.”

Hart spent six months last year just building stamina, doing a lot of walking. Late in the year he could start swinging a club, then he started playing a little. So it would stand to reason that making the cut at the AT&T was a big step forward, right?

“I wouldn’t say it’s rewarding,” Hart said. “I’ve played for so long, I look beyond that. Maybe I should temper my expectations, but I’ve always been pretty tough on myself. I expect a lot.”

Then he paused, as if remembering that he is 45 and years removed from his two Tour victories (1996 Honda, 2000 Canadian Open) and that it was only his third tournament since the end of 2009.

“It was good to get a full week in,” he said, “in cool weather, no less. The back is pretty good. A little stiff, but nothing bad, and that’s probably the best thing I can take out of this week.”

Hart is skipping this week’s Northern Trust Open, but he intends to return to play in two weeks at the Honda Classic, then the Valspar Championship outside of Tampa, and maybe two in Texas, the Valero and the Shell Houston Open. Beyond the back, which feels good, Hart reports that his wife is doing well, that her yearly check-ups have been good news.

“I feel like I’m 55 some days,” he said. “But I’m OK.”

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