It was a rare display of hubris from Dent, and he is embarrassed by the boast now. "When you're young, you think you're smarter than everyone else," he says. "I've been lucky, but I also have paid the price to be a golfer. I know that once you get a college diploma they can't take it away. It's a great piece of paper to have."
Dent knocked around Atlantic City for about seven years. He played golf and worked nights as a busboy and later as a waiter at the Smithville Inn. James Black, who would become a PGA touring pro and a good friend, helped Dent with his game. The two men shared the same fishing holes and traveled together to events on the predominantly black United Golf Association tour. Having never had a lesson, Dent looked up to Black, although Black was two years younger. A North Carolinian, Black had learned the game from Clayton Heafner and Sam Snead, and had won the Negro National Open, both as an amateur and as a professional. "Jim was all golf in those days," recalls Black.
When they practiced together, Dent would find a water hazard or an out-of-bounds marker and ask Black to explain the rule for playing the ball from there. Except for those dialogues, Dent never had much use for the Socratic method. Homero Blancas, who would coach Dent on chipping when he joined the Senior tour, also discovered that Dent would rather make a golf shot than stand around theorizing about it. "I tried explaining how to put backspin on the ball, but it was easier for him if I hit a few shots and let him try to copy me," says Blancas.
Life near the Boardwalk had its moments. At Mays Landing Country Club, a public course in McKee City where he was club champion in 1966, Dent was a legend. "All the local guys can show you the spots where Jim's 300-and 400-yard drives landed," says Stan Dudas, the current club pro.
"Those were the good old days," says Dent. "I thought I was the greatest golfer in the world. Money was scarce, but I didn't need much and I had no worries. I was doing what I wanted to do."
In Southern California, however, Dent could do it year-round and catch a few Dodger games in person. So in 1968 he headed west. In Los Angeles he met Mose Stevens, a real estate investor and golf groupie. Stevens, who died last year, was a benefactor to Pete Brown and a few other PGA touring pros in the '60s and '70s. Stevens sponsored Dent while he tried to earn his Tour card and, later, after he qualified. "Every summer he gave me $1,000 and a car, sent me back east and told me to play as long as the money lasted," says Dent. "He figured if you couldn't take $1,000 and keep some money in your pocket while you were playing, you were a poor golfer."
After trying unsuccessfully for four consecutive years, Dent finally got his Tour card in 1970. He was 31. "That might have been the best I ever played up to that point," says Dent, of the qualifying tournament. "I shot two or three under, and I was never over par."
Before his long drives earned him some decent paychecks and an exemption from qualifying, Dent was a rabbit—one of the nonexempt Tour pros who had to compete in a Monday qualifying round to gain a spot in that week's tournament. Rabbits hopped back to the mini-tours on Tuesday if they didn't qualify. "It was tough because you wanted to know how to shoot 68 instead of 75," says Dent. "But you couldn't learn too much from guys who were shooting 75 just like you."
That is as close as Dent comes to a lament about life before the Senior tour. "I didn't make whole lots of money, and I didn't win," he says. "But, hey, I thought it was good."
Dent's assessment may be upbeat, but his career on the PGA Tour didn't end in storybook fashion. By 1986 his 14-year marriage was finished. He moved out of the St. Petersburg, Fla., home he had shared with his wife, Brenda, and two children, Jimmy and Radiah, who were nine and 12, respectively, at the time. That same year, he lost his exemption and had to scrape out a living playing in mini-tours in Florida. With help from Black, who by then was a teaching pro in Tampa, Dent worked every day on improving his pitching and putting, getting ready for the Senior tour.