By Gideon Rubin
A very short stint washing dishes at a Solana Beach restaurant helped steer Jeff Hart’s career path.
Hart was a junior at Torrey Pines High in the late 1970s when he picked up a part-time job at “Mr. T’s,” a Solana Beach eatery that now goes by “T’s Cafe.”
Hart went on to become a professional golfer, competing on the PGA tour and now the Senior Tour.
“It opened my eyes up a little bit,” Hart said. “It made me realize how much I wanted to play golf and not be a working stiff for the rest of my life.”
Hart picked up the job at the prodding of his parents, who wanted him to work for his own pocket money. The work was much tougher than he expected. Hart quit after a few days.
“I didn’t like it that much, let’s put it that way,” he said.
Hart has been doing what he loves ever since.
After an admittedly unremarkable PGA career, he is now experiencing a career Renaissance on the Senior Tour.
Hart, 53, is ranked tied for 29th on the champions tour in points in what’s already been the most successful year in a career that spans four decades.
He’s placed in the top 20 in five straight champions tour events, with two top-10 performances highlighted by a sixth-place finish in the Constellation Senior Players championship in June.
He also placed eighth at the Senior Open Championship last month.
In the Constellation tournament, Hart finished ahead of Corey Pavin, Tom Lehman, Fred Funk, Tom Kite and Tom Watson, among other notables.
Not bad for a golfer who hadn’t had a top-10 tournament finish since 1987 at the Hattiesburg Deposit Guaranty Classic.
“I’m thankful, lucky and grateful, really, to be doing it at this age, especially since I didn’t have a very good career in my prime years of golf,” Hart said.
“At my age, [golf] is the only sport that I know of that you can pull that off and still make a living at it into your 50s, and there are guys out here that are doing it into their 60s.”
When Hart first started on the PGA tour in 1985, he played in tournaments with Jack Nicklaus in the twilight of his career. Hart was also grouped with Tiger Woods in his PGA debut at the Greater Milwaukee Open in 1986.
Hart is the first to admit he isn’t the same golfer he was when he joined to tour. He’s doesn’t have anywhere near the power he did when he started his professional career, and he now experiences aches and pains associated with arthritis that he acknowledges will likely end his career someday.
Nevertheless, in many ways, he is a better golfer today than he ever was.
“It’s tough to compare, but I would say I’m playing better than I ever did on the regular PGA tour,” Hart said, noting the different conditions played on the senior tour. “I don’t hit the ball as far as I used to and my body’s not as supple or as flexible as it once was, but I was never a long hitter to begin with, so even though I’ve lost some yardage over the years I’ve kind of made up for it other areas.
“I’m a better putter and my preparation is much better.”
Hart believes he’s also gained wisdom over the years that he believes has paid dividends on the golf course.
He’s learned not to be so hard on himself, and no longer tries to force the issue when things don’t go his way.
“In golf, sometimes the harder you try the worse you get at it,” he said. “You have to sort of learn to give up control to get control, and that’s the hardest concept for anybody to accept. We tend to think ‘I’ve got to get in there and try harder and work harder and do all this stuff’ when it’s really almost the opposite.
“That’s a hard thing to grasp.”
Hart has also had to accept a complicated champions tour qualifying format that’s based more on PGA career winnings than merit — a system that puts a journeyman golfer like Hart who needs to keep qualifying for tournaments to keep his career going at an inherent disadvantage.
“It’s a never-ending battle on the championship tour for me,” he said.
But although perhaps not entirely fair, Hart has no complaints about the qualifying rules. It’s the presence of big names on the tour that make the events profitable for everyone involved.
Hart has earned $676,883 so far on the champions tour. He earned $610,877 on the PGA tour.
“I have no gripes about the way it’s run, it should be that way,” Hart said. “We wouldn’t have a [champions] tour without the big name players.”
And it beats washing dishes.
“You know that old adage ‘do something you love,’ and forget about the money, that’s kind of what I’ve done,” Hart says.
“I haven’t made a lot of money until the last couple of years, but I just love it and I’m going to try to ride this out as long as I can. It’s been fun, I just hope it continues a little bit longer.”