At the Sony Open in January, Billy Hurley III will make history as the first graduate in the 166-year history of the U.S. Naval Academy to play full-time on the PGA Tour. Indeed, Hurley has taken one of the most unlikely paths to the tour that anybody’s ever travelled. He didn’t get serious about golf until the end of high school. Then, after lettering for four years at the Naval Academy and graduating in 2004, Hurley began his five-year Navy service commitment. He played in the 2005 Walker Cup and then pretty much gave up golf as his military duties intensified, taking him on ships to all corners of the planet and into combat. In 2009, Hurley finished his service and returned to golf with the goal of reviving his dormant game. He quickly progressed from the driving range to the mini-tours to the Nationwide Tour. A few weeks ago, Hurley finished 25th on the final Nationwide Tour money list to secure that tour’s final PGA Tour card for next year.
How’d you get into golf?
My dad played golf in college, and then he worked as an assistant pro for a while. He never tried to play. That was before I was born. So Dad was a big golfer and I grew up around the game. When I was 2 and 3, I’d ride in the cart while he played. But I never got serious until high school.
Were you an athlete as a child?
I was definitely an athlete. I played baseball, basketball and soccer. I was an all-star in baseball, and I’d rather have been a major leaguer than a PGA Tour player. I just wasn’t good enough at baseball. I quit baseball in high school after freshman year, because I was starting to get serious about golf. Still, I wasn’t any good. If I broke 90 as a freshman, it was a miracle. By sophomore year, I got pretty good and could break 80.
Did you compete much at golf as a child?
I never played big things. I really didn’t do competitive golf outside of high school until junior year, and then I did it only because the Naval Academy coach suggested that I should compete in tournaments to prepare for college golf.
What do your parents do for a living?
My father, Bill, was a police officer, a sergeant, in the Prince William County (Va.) force. He’s retired. Now, he works full-time in our church, the Reston Bible Church, overseeing missionary stuff. Mom was a homemaker. I’m the oldest of four children. I have one brother and two sisters.
How did you end up at Naval Academy?
The pastor of our church was a three-star admiral and his brother also went to the Naval Academy, so I heard a lot about the academy growing up. But nobody in my family was in the military. The retired admiral gave me a tour of the academy when I was a high-school freshman and I fell in love. I admired everything the academy stood for, and it was the only place to which I applied for college.
What about the academy was so alluring?
Lots of people come to Navy because they want to fly jets or their dads went. I just wanted to go. I was in love with the aura and mystique of the place. All the tradition, from dumb little things to the huge Army-Navy football game. I loved the ideals that the institution breeds: discipline, honor, courage, commitment. In high school, I met the golf team, watched a bunch of tournaments, and I grew to idolize them.
Navy is hardly a golfing powerhouse, so why choose to play there?
I loved Navy and they had a decent team. I basically recruited myself. My only goal was to play Division I golf. The coach didn’t have big expectations, but I played every match for all four years. That’s not common at any school. It’s especially tough to even make the starting five as a freshman at Navy because of the boot-camp summer stuff, which makes it hard to play anything in the first year.
Was professional golf on your mind as a teenager?
Freshman year, plebe summer, I told a classmate at the academy that I wanted to play on the PGA Tour. He laughed. I knew I wasn’t good enough, but I had a long-term plan. I knew, signing up for the Navy, that I’d committed to them for five years after graduation. My goal was to get good enough in college to have a chance, do my five years and after that try and play for a living.
Did you ever try to get out of your five-year service commitment so you could get back to golf?
I never dreamed that I’d be good enough to try pro golf at 22 years old. But then my senior season, I won six of 12 tournaments, shot a 61 and then I made the 2005 Walker Cup team. So I explored the so-called David Robinson policy, which allows you to do two years of active duty and then transfer to the reserves for three years, doing public-affairs recruiting while playing your sport. Ultimately, I was denied. I guess I wasn’t 7’1”, so there were places the Navy could put me. Also, it probably wouldn’t have looked good to let me out of my service so I could play golf while other officers were in combat and getting shot.
What was your plan after graduating?
I wanted to make the Walker Cup in 2005. But I didn’t know how I’d make the team if I couldn’t play. Fortunately, the Navy sent me to be a service warfare officer in November 2004 in Jacksonville, Fla., at the Mayport Naval Station. I was based on a cruiser but I had plenty of time to play golf and compete in tournaments. When I did pretty well, my commanding officer believed that I could make the Walker Cup team and felt that would be good for the Navy’s image, so he went straight to the top—the boss of the whole Navy in Washington–and got permission to have me moved back to the Naval Academy in 2005. Based in Annapolis, they let me play golf all summer and I made the team, so that made their decision look good.
Then what happened?
I applied for the David Robinson policy and was denied so golf went completely on the shelf. I was sent to a destroyer in Pearl Harbor and played five competitive days in two years. During one five-month stretch, I hit balls just once.
Did you think the layoff would spoil your chance at the tour?
Sure, that definitely crossed my mind. But I knew that lots of guys play their best golf in their 30s. In 2008, I played the Monday qualifier for the Sony Open and missed in a playoff. So I knew that my game hadn’t disappeared. Still, I worked my butt off in the Navy to be sure that door would be open for a career in case golf didn’t work.
What did you learn in the Navy that’s helped your golf?
I credit my Naval experience and the academy with teaching me about time management. There’s no way to survive in the Navy wasting time. On the golf team, I learned how to practice efficiently. We couldn’t practice all day like they do at some schools, because of school and other duties, so we had just two hours a day. I learned how to organize that time to the utmost. That’s so helpful now because it’s very easy to get distracted at tour events. The Navy really prepared me for life. I’m just a more mature person. I’ve travelled the world and stayed places where there definitely wasn’t an Outback Steakhouse to get dinner.
What were your biggest challenges in the Navy?
The 46 days we spent in the very north of the Persian Gulf off the coast of Iraq. We were defending Iraq’s oil platforms. Iran is right there, so there’s lots of action. Every day on the ship, we beat the heck out of ourselves doing the mission. We were doing everything, logistics for the ships, driving around the oil platform and making sure nobody got close. We had a helicopter flying all the time. We had small boats always running. I would stand watch for five hours, then take 10 hours off. I did five on, 10 off for 46 straight days.
Was it hot?
About 105 degrees in the shade, 98 percent humidity. There was just an incredible amount of exhaustion and everything was incredibly fast paced.
What was your coolest Navy experience?
I got to drive our shop through the Suez Canal. I was the officer on the deck for navigating. The ship was the USS Chung-Hoon, a guided missile destroyer based in Pearl Harbor.
I don’t suppose you brought your clubs on the Chung-Hoon?
Actually, Bridgestone, my sponsor, sent me a random set of irons and I had them on the shop. I kept them in my stateroom, but they never left the box until we finished our tour in the Persian Gulf. I opened them on the way home and used them once when we stopped in the Philippines.
When did you get out of the Navy?
June 30, 2009.
Was being in the Navy the only thing that’s bit into your time for golf?
I got married in May 2005. I spent that summer chasing golf, when the Navy let me make a run for the Walker Cup. We also have two little boys, one born in 2007 and the other in 2009.
What did it feel like when you started playing golf again?
It was good. It was literally the first point in my life that I was 100-percent focused on golf. I played in some mini-tour events and missed every cut in 2009. I was just trying to get into it. Then I went to Q school was pumped to make it through first stage. I played the mini-tours again in 2010 and got to the Q school finals. I was the medalist at my second-stage qualifier in 2010, and that was a wake-up call. It was the first really highly competitive thing I’d accomplished since getting out of the Navy. It was a big step in the right direction. That’s how my career has gone, one step at a time.
How have you paid for your golf?
After graduating, I was always on active duty and getting a salary. I assure you, we’ve never been eating at five-star restaurants, but we have never been in debt. Fortunately, my wife has always been on board with the idea of supporting my golf so we’ve always saved a lot.
When you began playing Nationwide, did you feel like you were making progress toward your ultimate goal?
Yes and no. I had serious doubts the first half of this year, because I wasn’t playing well. Then I turned it around. In August, I felt like I was the only player out there who mattered. I was just playing so well. The game felt easy. It was a sharp turn around. Then I eked it out at the end to get my card. It was a cool story.
What’s your relationship with Arnold Palmer?
I played with him a couple of years ago. He gave me three exemptions to play in his PGA Tour event at Bay Hill. He also granted me a tour player membership at Bay Hill, so I’ve spent time practicing there in the winter.
Does the membership include dining privileges?
No. The food bills would get back to me
What’s your mindset now that you have a PGA Tour card?
It’s cool. I came up with this analogy talking to some friends. I told them it’s like I’m in the starting lineup for an NFL team, which is crazy, right? But it’s cooler because there are less tour players than there are NFL players. I’m just real excited to go out there and play.
What’s the best perk of being a PGA Tour member?
The endorsement dollars. Wow!
What are you most looking forward to about playing on the PGA Tour?
Practicing with my golf ball. Getting to hit my Bridgestone ball on the range every day. That’ll be great. And really just competing, trying to see how good I am. Learning if I can get better. It’ll also be fun to form relationships with guys out there.
Are you as good as the guys on tour?
I can be. I played on the Walker Cup team with guys like Anthony Kim and Jeff Overton. If I teed it up with Overton 10 times, he’d win most of them because he’s better than I am now. But I can definitely play with those guys. I can have a hot week like everybody else. I definitely think I’m good enough to play and compete out there.
Do you enjoy the attention you get because of your military experience?
It’s a cool story. If I stepped out of my life and looked in, I’d be interested too.