It would be difficult to argue that Dudley Hart wasn't the happiest man at the Honda Classic on Sunday. He had won for the second time in his 10-year Tour career. He had done so at home—Hart lives in Weston, Fla., a few exits down the Sawgrass Expressway from Coral Springs and the TPC at Heron Bay. And he had done it by birdieing the last four holes. To top it off, Hart's victory was a special get-well gift for his father, Chuck, a former club pro who was recuperating from surgery. But forgive Mike Hulbert and Robert Gamez if they left Heron Bay with their spikes barely touching the grass. Hulbert, a 41-year-old journeyman coming off one of the worst seasons of his 16-year career, entered the Honda with a perfect record: He had not made a cut in the six tournaments he entered this season. At Heron Bay he made only four bogeys and finished 19th at 12 under, seven shots behind Hart. Gamez, who at 31 seems awfully young for a has-been, continued his comeback by placing 12th, his best finish in more than two years.
It was appropriate that Hulbert and Gamez reestablished themselves at the Honda, which this year became a haven for wannabes and used-to-bes. The Tour already has a John Deere Classic. Last week it put on the Dear John Classic. The many incarnations of the Honda, which traces its roots back to 1972 and Jackie Gleason, may include among its champions a Who's Who of golf ( Hale Irwin, Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Price, Curtis Strange and Lee Trevino), but the tournament was jilted this year by just about every current star. Only six of the top 30 and 25 of the top 100 players on the World Ranking played in the nightcap of the South Florida doubleheader. In fact, were it not for the second consecutive final-nine charge by Jim Furyk, who had won the week before at Doral, Sunday's battle at Heron Bay would've looked more like a Who's He of golf. Hart's closing birdies gave him a final-round 65 and a 269 for the four days, a shot better than J.P. Hayes and Kevin Wentworth, and two better than Furyk and Brian Gay. Thank god they still put the players' names on their caddies' backs.
Hart's final birdie saved the Tour from the embarrassment of having a seldom invoked rule knock Gay out of a possible playoff. Gay's birdie putt at the 17th hole hung on the lip before falling in. According to Rule 16-2, a ball in such a position, even one that is teetering, must fall within 10 seconds after the player reaches it. According to NBC videotape Gay's putt didn't drop until 13 seconds after he approached. The one-stroke penalty dropped him from a tie for second into a tie for fourth. That's a difference of $88,933, if you're scoring at home, more than Gay made all of last year. Never has anyone uttered the words, "It was a great week for me, the best week I've had," with less conviction than Gay did on Sunday.
Nestled between the newly fortified West Coast swing and a four-tournament stretch that includes this week's Bay Hill Invitational, the Players Championship and the Masters, the Honda turned out to be a good week to take off. The TPC at Heron Bay course designed by Mark McCumber, which has gotten more bad reviews than What Planet Are You From?, doesn't help. Plopped on a piece of Everglades flatlands—cows still graze on property between the front and back nines—Heron Bay's only defense is the wind. Even Tour nice guy Davis Love III, one of the few stars who showed up last week, described the course as "boring" and the tournament as "fading." He added, "They've got to do something to get it back up."
Without the top players the Honda filled its 144-man field with the freaks and geeks of Tour society, which, like nearby Palm Beach, is stratified largely by money. Those players who finish in the top 125 on the money list are exempt for the next year, as are the top 35 finishers in the annual Q school in the fall and the top 15 money winners on the Buy.com tour. Then come the guys who can't plan their lives, the so-called Q-pluses. Before they can play, they must wait and see what their exempted colleagues do. Hulbert, who is Q-plus-two (he ranks second among the outsiders), gets into more events than Perry Moss, a 30-year-old from Shreveport, La., who is Q-plus-six. Moss straddles the line between those who sit and those who play. He didn't get into the Honda until Charles Raulerson withdrew on the Tuesday night of tournament week. "The whole year is going to be like this," Moss says. "Sometimes in, sometimes out."
The Honda was Moss's fourth start this season. The next player on this week's list, Brett Quigley (Q-plus-eight), has gotten into only two tournaments. Three times this year, including last week, Quigley has been first alternate and failed to get into the tournament. Quigley, 30, awoke at his home in Jupiter, Fla., at 4:30 a.m. last Thursday. He arrived at the course at 5:45, as if he had the first tee time. He might have. "Someone can oversleep, get a flat tire on the highway, get sick overnight," he says.
That puts Quigley in an awkward position. Last Wednesday, for example, Craig Bowden got sick and was up all night. He made it to the clubhouse the next morning, although he seldom left the bathroom. Quigley had to root for the food poisoning. When an ashen-faced Bowden reached the 1st tee at 8:36 a.m., Quigley stood on the practice green nearby, watching to make sure Bowden took his first swing. "It sucks," Quigley says. "I feel like there's a dark cloud over me. No one wants to see me. I've got to know what everyone's doing—who's registered, who's coming in late."
When the morning tee times concluded, Quigley returned to the clubhouse, ate another breakfast and worked out in the fitness trailer. Around 11 he went back to the range to warm up again. Quigley carried a sheet with the late tee times and took roll until he accounted for all 72 players. Once he did that he returned to the locker room, packed up and drove home. There is a sliver of daylight for Quigley—literally. Once daylight savings time begins next month, most fields expand from 144 to 156 players.
For a veteran like Hulbert, being Q-plus-two is not as big a crisis as it would be for a younger player. If they gave a Good Guy Award on Tour, the unassuming Hulbert would have a shelf full of trophies. Strange, the 2001 Ryder Cup captain, appointed him as his assistant. In 15 years on Tour, Hulbert has won three tournaments and averaged 32 starts per year. His iron man tendencies cost him in '99, when in an attempt to keep his exemption, he played in all 12 of the events between the PGA Championship in August and the end of the season on Nov. 1. "That was stupid, crazy," he says.
It didn't work, either. Hulbert finished 143rd on the money list, with $264,564. The grind wore him down so badly that he entered Q school with no fuel in his tank. Two 76s in the six-round event left him tied for 129th, 12 strokes out of the top 35. "I had to go, but I just didn't have it, mentally or physically," Hulbert says. "If I didn't go, that doesn't look good."