Billy Hurley III’s Breakthrough Win at Congressional Proves Golf Doesn’t Need Tiger Woods to Thrive

June 29, 2016

Tiger Woods was everywhere at last week’s Quicken Loans National: in the press room, in the broadcast booth, at the trophy ceremony. (His eponymous foundation is the tournament beneficiary.) It was a nice touch that Woods wore his Sunday red, even though he made it clear that teeing it up in a tournament remains a long way off. Any Tiger sighting these days creates a touch of wistfulness; watching him at the height of his powers was the thrill of a lifetime, and every golf fan would love to be able to take in the spectacle one more time. But even as Woods was chewing the scenery at Congressional Country Club, the on-course action was a reminder that the game is doing just fine without him. Billy Hurley III’s victory was one of the most emotional in recent memory, the former Navy lieutenant winning his first Tour event a year after the very public disappearance and subsequent suicide of his father, a former police detective who had taught his son the game. Hurley came into the week ranked 607th in the world, splitting time between the tour and the big leagues.

“It’s been a hard year. It’s been a really hard year,” said the 34-year-old Hurley. “So it’s nice to have something go well.”

Hurley’s surprise victory was as welcome as the breakthroughs of other fresh talents this season: Fabian Gomez in Hawaii and Tony Finau in Puerto Rico. (Long-hitting Jon Rahm, a week after finishing as low amateur at the U.S. Open, tied for third in his pro debut at Congressional, and this megatalent looks like a sure thing to soon join the list of Tour winners.) All of these players have taken circuitous routes to the PGA Tour, and their success has been a reminder that golf remains the ultimate meritocracy in sports. Indeed, in addition to Hurley, there even has been room for overdue underdogs Vaughn Taylor, Jim Herman and Brian Stuard, journeymen who have come through in 2016 with satisfying victories in Pebble Beach, Houston and New Orleans, respectively.

The depth of the Tour creates these charming weekly storylines, but Woods was the ultimate provider of starpower. It’s hard to imagine another golfer will ever get as big as Tiger, but in his absence the game has minted a new generation of headliners, notably Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler (to say nothing of teens Lydia Ko and Brooke Henderson). They play the game differently and offer divergent backstories but together furnish a powerful mix of youth, likability and telegenic looks, plus a dollop of social media savvy. And now comes the mother of all golf summers, which will turn the volume way up.

In the next five weeks the PGA Tour will host the World Golf Championship at Firestone and two major championships on old-school tracks, the British Open at Royal Troon and the PGA Championship at Baltusrol. In the same time span on the LPGA—where, oh by the way, at the Walmart Arkansas NW Championship, Ko won again last week, setting even more records—we get the Women’s U.S. Open, the Women’s British Open and the International Crown. Then for both the men and women, it’s on to the Olympics, where a boutique sport will get to be part of the biggest athletic gathering extant. Forget whatever doom and gloom you’ve been hearing: When the gold medals get draped around a couple of golfers’ necks and their national anthems are played, it will be a very big deal.

The intrigue of golf’s first appearance in the Games in 112 years will be followed by the FedEx Cup, the first three playoff events coming in consecutive weeks in a mad rush of points (and heartbreak for the players who don’t accrue enough of them). Five days after the Tour Championship concludes, the Ryder Cup begins. It is being played a week after the fall equinox, but, hey, we’re counting the proceedings at Hazeltine in Chaska, Minn., toward this monster summer of golf.

So yes, it was bittersweet to see Tiger Woods at Congressional (and he’ll surface again when he serves as an assistant captain at the Ryder Cup). But with so many exciting things happening in golf these days, there’s not really time to miss him.