“It was 110 in the shade in the Persian Gulf. That was maybe as hot as you’ve ever seen. I’ve definitely dealt with it a lot. . . . For whatever reason, I play really well when it’s hot,” said Billy Hurley III, 30, a Tour rookie ranked 439th in the world, who stands in tied for fifth after shooting a 2-under-par 69 in Thursday’s first round.
The “whatever reason” is, of course, the toughness he had ground into him in nine years at the Academy and in the fleet. It’s a life that’s almost incomprehensible to those who have not been exposed to it. Many players on Tour like to drive a Taylormade R11. Hurley, who grew up in Leesburg, went to Loudoun County High and now lives in Annapolis, is good at driving, too. He won awards as his squadron’s best. Try keeping a 10,000-ton guided-missile destroyer in the fairway. Blink and there goes Pago Pago.
Yes, Hurley is unique. No military academy grad has ever played the pro golf tour before. That five-year service commitment can put a permanent crimp in your game roughly 100 percent of the time — that is, except in the case of the blond, 5-foot-10, 170-pound former lieutenant. Since childhood, he’s had two dreams: Navy first, golf second.
At one level, Hurley is a local player who is just a long-shot pro even though he played on the Walker Cup team in ’05. He was reduced to being “a recreational golfer” in 2008-’09 when he was stationed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. “I don’t think anyone else out here has taken a two-year hiatus from golf,” Hurley said wryly of a period when he played “only five competitive rounds.”
“The background certainly doesn’t fit [the Tour profile],” Hurley added. “Nobody has ever gone to a service academy and played out here. There’s probably nobody out here, might be a couple of guys, who actually took time off of golf at any point in their life.”
In a narrowly defined golf sense, Hurley is an ultimate underdog. The son of a local golf pro (32 years) who was also a 20-year policeman, he is on the golf circuit by the skin of his teeth. Hurley grabbed the very last spot to get on the PGA Tour this season — as the 25th money-winner on the Nationwide Tour. And he had to birdie his final hole then wait for a friend, Scott Brown, to finish par-par-par just to do that.
“There was a camera crew following me around the last four or five holes. I figured as long as they didn’t leave, I still had a chance. I needed to birdie the last to have a chance,” he recalled. “Then I had to wait an hour to see how everybody finished.” His buddy Brown finished strong to ice it.