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Gators golf great Dudley Hart continues legacy through coaching

Dudley Hart stands near a team golf cart as he watches the tee shot on the 17th hole.
Cooper Bates/WUFT News
Dudley Hart stands near a team golf cart as he watches the tee shot on the 17th hole.

J.C. Deacon was in a bind. With just one month before the University of Florida men’s golf was set to begin its 2021-2022 season, the Gators’ head coach was suddenly without an assistant.

In August 2021, Mark Leon, who was Florida’s assistant golf coach at the time, accepted the job as the men’s head golf coach at Florida Atlantic University, leaving Deacon with a phone call to make.

To fill the interim role, Deacon asked four-time UF All-American golfer and two-time PGA Tour winner Dudley Hart if he could fill the vacancy until a new assistant coach was hired.

Hart had already been around the team as a volunteer assistant coach since 2017, so it was a seamless fit.

It was also perfect timing for Hart, who was at home in Naples nursing a left thumb injury that forced him to withdraw from the 2021 Bridgestone Senior Players Championship.

Since landing on the PGA Tour in 1991, Hart battled through several injuries, especially back and spinal injuries. But this was the final straw for Hart, who was out for nearly the full 2021 season while on the Champions Tour, playing in only two tournaments that year.

“I found out from having all that time off when I was injured that I needed something to do,” Hart said. “I’d already been a volunteer assistant for the team for about five years, and I’d come up [to Gainesville] a couple times a semester for two to four days and help in any way they needed, and I loved it.”

Deacon was going to need Hart in Gainesville with the team full time until a new assistant was hired, so Hart agreed to temporarily move to Gainesville, where he’d stay in the casita at Deacon’s house.

However, it didn’t take long for Hart to realize that this temporary move might have the potential to be long-term.

“After a few days, I just started thinking about it and thought this was exactly what I need to do,” Hart said about wanting to be Florida’s next assistant golf coach. “I went into [Deacon’s] office and said this is what I want to do and told him I think I’d be good at it.”

Dudley Hart (right) watches Ryan Hart’s setup before he swings.
Cooper Bates/WUFT News
Dudley Hart (right) watches Ryan Hart’s setup before he swings.

Despite Hart’s clear qualifications with 30 years of professional golf experience, Deacon was initially unsure that Hart would be willing to put up with an assistant coach’s off-course work, like recruiting and administrative duties.

“I kind of tried to talk him out of it because I wasn’t sure if he knew what he was getting into,” Deacon said. “There’s a lot more that goes into being an assistant golf coach than just being out on the course, but he was up for everything, and it was an easy choice for us. He bleeds orange and blue and loves the University of Florida.”

From Hart’s time as a volunteer assistant coach, he already knew what areas the team needed to improve on when he was officially named as Florida’s assistant golf coach on Sept. 15, 2021.

He noticed that, generally, most of the players’ weaknesses were on shots that were 130 yards or closer to the pin, like pitch shots and chip shots around the green. They also hadn’t learned how to thoroughly manage a course quite yet. Hart admitted he wasn’t great at that either when he played golf at UF from 1987 to 1990.

“That’s the stuff that I saw, especially when I was a volunteer assistant, which made me believe I would be good for this job,” Hart said. “I’ve really done nothing my whole life except learn how to practice and play golf better, and I’ve been around the best players in the world most of my whole adult life and learned from them and the best teachers.”

Hart happened to join Deacon and the Gators at a time when the team featured the likes of Fred Biondi, Ricky Castillo, John DuBois and Yuxin Lin, who were all in their junior year when Hart arrived. Each of them would go on to earn PING All-American honors as seniors in 2023.

“We had a really good team, and I think he brought some intangibles that helped put us over the edge to win the SEC and national championship,” said Deacon, who is entering his 10th season as head coach.

The Gators made history in 2023 by becoming the only team in program history to win the NCAA team title, NCAA individual title and conference team title in the same season.

Further, Hart was named the 2023 Jan Strickland Outstanding Assistant Coach of the Year, joining John Handrigan in 2015 as the only Gator to receive the award. On Aug 31., Deacon announced he was promoting Hart to associate head coach.

“This has probably been the most rewarding thing that I’ve done in my life,” Hart said about coaching. “Being around kids that have the same dreams and the same passion that I had has been a lot of fun for me.”

Not only did Hart help Florida men’s golf bring home its fifth national title, but he also was able to share the team’s triumphs with his son, Ryan Hart, who’s in his fourth season on the team.

“It was really cool,” Ryan Hart said of the championship moments. “I never thought about having that moment with him, but it was really special.”

Ryan Hart arrived at UF in 2020, one season before Dudley Hart was hired, fulfilling his dream to play golf for the Florida Gators.

Ryan Hart said there was a small tweak to the practice regiment that his father pushed for upon his arrival. During Ryan Hart’s freshman year, players practiced on their own schedules.

However, the assistant coach believed the team should have organized practices together a few times a week to build more of a team mindset.

“We had scheduled workouts already, but then we started practicing together three times a week and it’s been like that since,” Ryan Hart said. “The discipline has definitely helped.”

In 2023, Ryan Hart won his first collegiate tournament at the Daytona Beach Spring Invitational, earning him Week 11 SEC Golfer of the Week honors. He also served as the team alternate for the SEC Championship, NCAA Regionals and NCAA Championship.

Dudley Hart (right) and his son Ryan break down a shot in the fairway.
Cooper Bates/WUFT News
Dudley Hart (right) and his son Ryan break down a shot in the fairway.

“Having him on the team is probably the hardest part of this job for me because he’s my kid,” Dudley Hart said. “I have to make sure I do not in any way shape or form play favorites. I have to take the dad part out of me when it’s time to pick players for spots in the lineup.”

Not only has coming back to UF given Dudley Hart a new purpose beyond his playing days, but it has also given him the chance to go back to school and earn his degree.

After Dudley Hart’s senior year at UF in 1990, he elected to turn pro and try to qualify for the PGA Tour, foregoing an extra fall semester with some requirements still left to graduate. He was out of college eligibility, so he couldn’t play for Florida that fall and would’ve had to wait a full calendar year to try to qualify for the PGA Tour in the fall of 1991 if he elected to stay in school.

“I didn’t want to put that off for a whole year, and I had nowhere to play in the spring and summer, so I decided to take a semester off, turn pro and try to get my tour card,” Dudley Hart said. “But back then, there was no internet or online courses to take, so I had some unfinished business.”

Fortunately, it worked out for Dudley Hart as he earned his tour card through the PGA Tour qualifying school and would play his first season on the PGA Tour in 1991.

Dudley Hart is currently enrolled in two courses and seeking his degree as a history major. Assuming all goes well with his classes, he’ll graduate at the end of the spring semester.

Dudley and the Gators began their 2024 campaign in January with wins at the Pablo Creek Collegiate Cup and the Sea Best Invitational, building momentum toward a possible SEC and NCAA title defense.

Cooper is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.