AKRON, Ohio — Once Billy Hurley III found his way to Firestone Country Club here Tuesday, which wasn’t all that easy since he hadn’t been here before, he made his first visit to the range and bumped into Michael Greller, Jordan Spieth’s caddie.
“Thanks for making us all cry,” Greller told him.
What happened over the weekend when Hurley pulled away to win the Quicken Loans National at Congressional was not just a breakthrough victory for a PGA Tour player, it felt almost like a victory for America. It was especially apropos because Tiger Woods is the tournament host; he’s a military man’s son and he makes a point to honor all branches of the military during the week. And, oh yeah, Billy Hurley is a U.S. Naval Academy grad who has traveled the seas on destroyers and aircraft carriers.
So Hurley was already an American hero even before he won a golf tournament. He’s 34 now and for a guy to serve in the Navy after graduation, get a late start in his professional sport and then succeed like this in the clutch, outplaying Ernie Els and Vijay Singh and newly-minted rookie Jon Rahm, it was the feel-good story of the year.
Hurley had no idea about that, of course. He’s married, he’s got two kids and he’s just been grinding trying to make a living at golf between bouts of laundry, re-packing and travel. There has always been a lot of “Go Navy!” support wherever he goes but this time, it was different.
“I’m a little flabbergasted, I didn’t know that many people cared that much about me,” Hurley said Tuesday before he prepares to play in his first World Golf Championship, the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club. “I’ve heard from so many grown men telling me they were watching golf and crying on Sunday. I had a friend from California leave a message and he was fighting back tears the whole time. So that surprised the heck out of me.”
It’s not just the patriotic twist that moved golf fans. Hurley made an emotional plea at last year’s Quicken Loans National event for the public to help find his missing father. He was found within a few days, in a curious situation, and returned home. Not long after, he went missing again. His father, a former policeman, had depression issues, and was found dead from a self-inflicted wound. It was a tough story, so tough that CBS announcers glossed over it during the telecast by saying his father simply passed away.
Hurley is making multiple people cry. Start with his sister, Megan. She was scheduled to get married in July in a Leesburg, Va., church, just a few blocks from the Hurley home. By winning at Congressional, Billy earned a spot in the British Open, played on the same weekend.
What would you do? What would an American hero do? What would a Navy man do? Hurley told the R&A early Tuesday that he will not be playing the Open at Royal Troon.
“I wouldn’t miss my sister’s wedding for the world,” Hurley said. “It’s very important for me to be there to support her and her new husband. It was a pretty easy decision.”
He says that knowing full well how big it is to play in major championships. Especially when you’re 34 and still trying to establish yourself on the PGA Tour — well, until last weekend, anyway. Billy had a short session on the phone with her Sunday night after the situational conflict arose.
“She tried not to really influence me a ton Sunday night,” Billy said, “but I called her while I was playing today and she started crying. So she was pretty thrilled that I’ll be there.”
Maybe all decisions are easy after you’ve been on the bridge of a warship and made decisions that could affect the lives of every crew member on board.
Maybe golf is easier after all that. Maybe not. There was a lot of time at sea when Hurley couldn’t play golf at all. Once, he said, he hit a couple of golf balls into the ocean off a makeshift tee on board an aircraft carrier during a recreation period. That was it.
There he was Sunday, holing a key pitch for birdie on the 15th hole and then holing a long birdie putt at the 16th that all but iced his victory.
Just like that, Mr. Midshipman is exempt on the PGA Tour. He’s a pro golfer, full-time. He has arrived.
When he missed the cut in Puerto Rico in March, he began to wonder whether he should look for a new line of work. He just wasn’t getting results. Golf can be — usually is — frustrating. A friend suggested he take a day to think about quitting and what it would be like, what he would do. But the time wasn’t right to quit.
“My wife and I always said that we’d make that decision every August whether we’re going to renew our contract to continue playing golf,” he said. “August is when you’ve got to sign up for Q-school, so it’s been an August-to-August thing for us. So she said, ‘Well, you can’t quit until August so it doesn’t matter.'”
So Billy played on, still without much in the way of results, but his game was coming around. When he shot nine under par and won the U.S. Open sectional qualifier at Rockville, Md., his brother was on the bag for it. “That’s the best I’ve ever seen you play,” his brother told him.
Coming off the final green at Congressional, his brother was there, of course. “Are you still thinking about retiring?” he joked.
Hurley’s journey has been unlike anyone else’s in golf. Plenty of pros served in the military during wartime, including Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Jack Fleck, and Arnold Palmer served in the Coast Guard. But Hurley was an academy guy, a potential Navy lifer.
He couldn’t let go of golf. Now, golf won’t let go of him.
“After three or four years on tour, I was just enjoying knowing where I was going and where I was staying, where the locker room was, where the driving range was and when I was driving here yesterday, I was like a rookie again,” he said. “I don’t have a clue where I’m going. I’ve never been to Firestone. I’ve never been to Baltusrol. I’ve never been to Kapalua. I’ve never been to the Masters. I’ve got to start all over again.”
It has been a whirlwind since his surprising win. “I don’t think they were expecting me here,” Hurley joked. “My locker is kind of in a corner and my parking spot is in the back of the lot. But I’m happy to just have those this week, to be honest. When I checked into the hotel last night, the desk guy said, ‘Great chip yesterday on 15.’ And I was like, ‘That was just yesterday?’ It felt like three or four days ago at this point. It’s been fun.”
And it’s been emotional. Back to the grown-men-crying thing. Hurley was paired with Ernie Els, maybe the nicest guy on tour, and sensed that Els was actually rooting him on once his own chances of winning faded. After Hurley two-putted for the victory, Else gave him a hug and said, “I think your dad is really proud of you right now.”