On this day of remembrance, Nationwide Tour golfers preparing for this week’s Melwood Prince George’s County Open have a lot to think about. Strolls down the fairway might be accompanied by memories of those who make it possible for people to thwack golf balls and stroke putts for a living. One player in the field, however, may think back to his own time in uniform, when golf was barely a part of his life.
Despite graduating as the country’s top collegiate golfer, Billy Hurley III has so far navigated a career highlighted by much more than clutch putts or hoisted trophies. Just a few years ago, the golfing prodigy was wrapped up in more ambitious pursuits, like steering a war ship through the Suez Canal, or sailing from Pearl Harbor to the Persian Gulf to help protect Iraqi oil platforms. Hurley - a 2004 Naval Academy graduate - spent time near Bahrain, the Red Sea, Djibouti, Indonesia, Philippines, Maldives, China, Japan and Korea before concluding his mandatory five-year tour of duty in the summer of 2009. Now he’s trying to find a permanent home on the PGA Tour.
“I’m happy that I was in the Navy for those five years, and I’m glad that I went to the Naval Academy, and I wouldn’t change anything about that,” Hurley said. “But I want to play golf. If I didn’t, I’d still be in the Navy.”
Hurley didn’t spend the first three years of his service far from his golf bag. His stint as a combat electronic division officer on the guided-missile cruiser U.S.S. Gettysburg in Florida kept him close to shore, as did his subsequent job teaching economics classes back at the Naval Academy. He played on the victorious 2005 U.S. Walker Cup team alongside Anthony Kim, J.B. Holmes and Jeff Overton, all of whom have since garnered Ryder Cup experience. He entered the professional ranks in 2006, competing in six PGA Tour events and making two Nationwide Tour starts.
Although his first career start culminated in a T43 finish at the Bay Hill Invitational, Hurley made only one cut in his five other PGA Tour events. He then failed to make it through Q-School, leaving him unable to secure his tour card for the following year. Hurley petitioned the Navy to grant him reserve status for his final two years of service, hoping to keep his game on track while serving as a kind of golfing ambassador for the Navy. It would have been a deferment similar to that given to former Navy basketball star David Robinson, who was allowed to pursue a professional career even with time left on his military duties.
But the Navy wasn’t interested in deferring Hurley to mini-tours or the Nationwide circuit. They denied his request and sent him packing aboard the USS Chung-Hoon, a destroyer on which he would spend much of his next two years overseas.
“Once I got back to the ship it was nose to the grindstone doing that job and golf was way on the backburner,” Hurley said.
During those two years abroad, Hurley played a total of five competitive 18-hole rounds of golf, including one five-month stretch where he touched a golf club just once. Compare that to tour pros such as Vijay Singh, whose idea of a day off is to spend only six hours working on his game.
It didn’t take long for Hurley to shake off the rust when he returned home. He joined the Hooters Tour in 2010 and won the Terry Moore Ford Open in Conover, N.C., in his second start of the season. More success followed eight months later when he medaled at the second stage of Q-School.
Hurley’s play as of late hasn’t been too shabby, either. He fired a bogie-free 67 to take medalist honors in a local U.S. Open qualifier at Lake Presidential Golf Club on May 10. That result puts him in the June 6 Sectionals at Woodmont Country Club, where a top-10 finish would mean a spot on one of the biggest stages in professional golf.
“I feel like all the pieces of the puzzle are there, I’m just trying to make them all fit,” Hurley said.
Such stellar results are nothing new for Hurley, who walked away from the Naval Academy as the most decorated golfer in school history. A winner of the 2004 Byron Nelson Award as the country’s top collegiate golfer, Hurley won six of the 12 tournaments he entered in his senior season. That success came as a surprise to his college coach, Pat Owen, whose initial perception of Hurley was of a decent mid-70s golfer, anything but a world-beater.
“I thought I would be getting a solid golfer, but I had no idea I would be getting the whole package,” Owen said.
Hurley’s rapid improvement took place throughout his four years at the Academy, particularly during the summer between his junior and senior years. After his hiatus from the game, Hurley will need to replicate that improvement to become a mainstay on the PGA Tour. To anyone who knows him, though, such ascension is only a matter of time.
“In terms of at-bats, he’s way behind the guys on tour who are his same age,” Owen said. “But I think he’s moving at a rapid pace, and I think if he continues to improve at this pace then he’ll be a steady force on the [PGA] Tour for a long time.”
Mark Guttenberg - a PGA instructor who gave Hurley private lessons as a youth - has long admired Hurley’s commitment to his country and believes it can only benefit his golf game.
“I think the character that he builds in that military service is going to shine for him and persevere in the long run,” Guttenberg said. “It may be the very reason he succeeds in the long run.”