This story first appeared in the February 2012 edition of GOLF Magazine. On Sunday, Hurley won for the first time on the PGA Tour, at the Quicken Loans Invitational.
Every now and then, from his perch on a destroyer in the Persian Gulf, Billy Hurley III would allow his mind to wander. He’d picture himself stateside, plying the plush fairways of his favorite courses, competing in a game he’d left behind. It was the summer of 2007. Back on U.S. soil, J.B. Holmes and Anthony Kim, Hurley’s former comrades in the Walker Cup, were raking in Tour riches. But half a world away, war raged in Iraq, and Hurley had more pressing obligations, protecting key oil platforms off that country’s coast.
“I’d think about golf from time to time,” Hurley says. “But I also knew my priorities. And at that point in my life, the game was going to have to wait.”
Golfers often talk of honor and commitment. The words have deeper meaning when they come from Hurley, 29, who after finishing 25th on the Nationwide Tour money list in 2011 became the first graduate of the Naval Academy to earn a PGA Tour card.
In 2004, as his top collegiate peers set off to earn their Tour stripes, Hurley embarked on the five years of military service required of all Annapolis grads, a prolonged global swing that took him from tense waters in the Middle East to hot zones in the South China Sea. Early in his stint, Hurley kept his game sharp—sharp enough, at least, to secure a spot on the 2005 Walker Cup squad. But in his last two years of service, nearly half of which were spent at sea, he left his clubs to molder as he carried out the tasks of a surface warfare officer on the U.S.S. Chung-Hoon, a 10,000-ton guided-missile destroyer.
In that time, as he and his Navy cohorts orchestrated sweeps of suspicious foreign vessels and escorted nuclear submarines to and from their ports, Hurley played all of five competitive rounds, and limited his practice to banging the odd ball off the Chung-Hoon’s flight deck. The only hardware he collected was for Ship Handler of the Year, an honor he earned for his skillful piloting of the hulking warship.
Navigating fairways required retraining. In 2009, his time in uniform completed, Hurley returned to tournament golf, his swing and short game rusted over. He played the mini-tours, and took a crack at Q School, falling short of the final stage. Through work with his instructor, Mitchell Spearman, Hurley forged a swing that was less timing dependent. The following year a stronger Q School showing vaulted him onto the Nationwide Tour, where, in 2011, four top-10s helped promote the former lieutenant to the highest ranks of the game.
“When I stop to think about it, it’s pretty surreal,” Hurley says. “The perks out here are just mind-boggling. You travel to beautiful places, getting paid to play golf. And the treatment you get, it’s just silly. Nobody deserves to be treated this well.”
Pro golf, as Hurley sees it, isn’t so much a job as it is a privileged adventure. But it didn’t always strike him as a viable career. Growing up in Virginia, the son of a club pro turned county cop, Hurley was a good all-around athlete but not a great golfer. His freshman year in high school, Hurley made the golf team but not the starting lineup, struggling to break 90 throughout the year. By his senior year, he could hold his own against top regional talents, but college recruiters weren’t beating down his door.
Not that he would have paid them much heed. Midway through high school, a retired Navy admiral, the father of the pastor at Hurley’s church, led him on a tour of Navy’s Annapolis campus. Smitten by its aura, Hurley set his course for the Academy. “I only applied to one school, and I pretty much recruited myself,” Hurley says. “I wrote letters to the golf coach. I wore a Navy cap to my high school tournaments.”
Much like Army golf—left, right, left, right—Navy golf can be erratic, largely because of the schedules its players keep. Compared to many Division I athletes, midshipmen carry heavy course loads—in math and science, not basket-weaving. Required to graduate in four years, they aren’t permitted to red-shirt, and the huthut demands of their military training cut severely into practice time. “And when the summer months come along,” says Pat Owen, Navy’s golf coach since 1991, “you’re less likely to be on a golf course than on a submarine.”
Hurley came to campus as a solid player, but little in his game set him instantly apart. “He wasn’t one of those guys who jumped out at you right off,” Owen says. “He was skinny as can be, and probably hit his 7-iron 150 yards.”
Still, there were flashes of his outsize skills. As a freshman, Hurley flirted with the stroke-play title at the conference championships. As a senior, he shot a 61; won six of 13 tournaments he entered; and advanced to match play at the 2003 U.S. Amateur, knocking off future Tour pro Spencer Levin in the first round. “Whatever it was that clicked between his junior and senior year, he just came out firing,” says Hurley’s former Navy teammate Brian Crum. “From then on there was no looking back.”
By then, Hurley’s reputation had filtered up the ranks. Top brass referred to him as “Tiger Hurley,” and, after graduation, they granted him enough leeway in his schedule for him to compete in the Walker Cup. But there were limits. Unlike David Robinson, who, in the late 1980s, received special dispensation to juggle his naval duties with his NBA demands, Hurley was turned down when he petitioned for a reduction in his active-duty service.
“I wasn’t trying to get out of my obligations,” Hurley says. “I just thought I could serve in a public relations role as a kind of public face of the Navy. But I understood the decision. We were engaged in two wars. Politically, it wasn’t a good time for a guy to be out there playing golf.”
The call of his country placed ahead of his career, Hurley launched his five-year commitment, which began in Florida and Annapolis, where he taught economics, and culminated in Pearl Harbor with a two-year deployment on the Chung-Hoon. When he set sail, Hurley left behind a one-year-old son, Will, and his wife, Heather, who harbored no illusions about being an officer’s wife. “You know there will be times when you’re without your husband and your kids are without their father,” she says. “But you learn to embrace that as part of the adventure of life.”
For Hurley, separating from family was far tougher than distancing himself from the game. Though his clubs came with him on the ship, he stashed them in his stateroom, dusting them off only during brief stops in the Philippines and Japan. A ship rocking at high sea was no place to practice putting, and a war zone not the setting to smack balls off the flight deck, as Hurley occasionally had in Hawaii. Here, the water hazards were all too real.
During a three-month stint, the Chung-Hoon trolled the Red Sea between Yemen and Eritrea, a central smuggling route for weapons, drugs and people. At one point, Hurley says, his shipmates detained a high-ranking target on the terrorist watch list but were forced to release him when a search of his boat failed to turn up contraband. For a two-month stretch in the Persian Gulf, Hurley steered the Chung-Hoon through Iraqi waters, back and forth along a single mile of coastline, a mind-numbing patrol of supreme importance: the ship was safeguarding two oil platforms that support most of Iraq’s economy.
Even on the water, the heat was relentless. (“One hundred and ten in the shade if you were lucky,” Hurley says.) Sand whipped off the shoreline, cloaking the horizon in a stubborn haze. “I wouldn’t say the job was hard, but it required focus,” Hurley says. “I’d get a get a good night’s sleep one out of every three nights.”
To Hurley’s fellow sailors, including his commanding officer, Jim Aiken, that focus was a blessing, and somewhat of a surprise. “I was a bit worried that Billy was going to be more into being a golfer than a naval officer,” Aiken says. “But Billy showed us right off that he was the best. He was humble and hardworking. He was smart and dedicated. You wish that every officer could be like him.”
The tensest times on Tour can’t compare to the pressures of piloting a warship in pitch-black conditions with hundreds of sailors asleep in the ship’s hold, just as nothing Hurley dealt with can match the experience of servicemen and women who endured combat. During Hurley’s time in the Navy, two fellow athletes and Academy classmates—one a wrestler, the other a lacrosse star—were killed in action. One of Hurley’s former golf teammates, Marty Keogh, survived a land-mine explosion in Afghanistan.
“When I was No. 25 on the Nationwide Tour, people kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Wow, you must feel so much pressure in your position,’ ” Hurley says. “But that’s not how I saw it. First of all, there were only 24 guys out there who wouldn’t have traded places with me. Second of all, I’ve just had more life experience than a lot of them. I’ve seen a lot of the world and how people live. And I know that what we do out on the golf course is just not all that important in the grand scheme of things.”
More than two-plus years into his new civilian life, Hurley has relaxed some of his Navy habits; unless he has an early tee time, he often sleeps past 5 a.m. But old tendencies die hard. He still wears crisply ironed clothes, as if prepped for inspection, and remains as punctual as an admiral’s timepiece. The Academy’s mascot—Bill the Goat—is his on-course companion in the form of the head cover on his driver. Though he earned $181,000 last year on the Nationwide Tour—and now faces the prospect of much fatter purses—he oversees his budget like he’s braced for cuts. He and Heather live with their two children (the couple adopted their second son, Jacob, from Ethiopia) in a modest Annapolis townhouse, and they beat around town in a 2002 Honda Civic with 192,000 miles on it. “I’m hoping it gets to 300,000,” Hurley says. vA loyal Navy man, he lives, and plays golf, by the Army motto.
“The idea is to train and train so that when the time comes to do it, you’re prepared, it’s second nature,” Hurley says. “That’s true in the military, and it’s true when you head out to the course.”