“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.
Somehow, somewhere, with only $85,702 in winnings in ’2012, Hurley has to cash a big check to keep his card. Maybe it’s this week. “I hit it well last year. I haven’t hit it as well this year, so far. But I am now,” Hurley said.
Yet in so many other ways, it’s hard to see how Hurley doesn’t find a way to complete this golf mission he’s been on ever since he was a high school player who no college recruited.
“I remember during Plebe Summer 12 years ago telling one of my classmates that I was going to play on the PGA Tour. He laughed and was like, ‘Good luck with that,’ ” Hurley recalled. “I didn’t know if I’d be good enough. Then all of a sudden my senior year I took a couple of steps forward and became good enough to try.”
However, he had to wait five years, something he relished, hard as it was. “Five years of sleep deprivation,” said Hurley, asked to sum up the worst of the Navy life. For him, the best has always far outweighed the huge cost.
“I took a tour of the Academy after my freshman year of high school with a retired admiral who was a family friend and fell in love with it,” Hurley said. “It was the only place I wanted to go, the only place I applied. I just fell in love with everything the Naval Academy stood for: honor, courage, commitment, traditions, [everything] that embodies the place and the Navy.” This was before 9/11, an event that spiked applications at the academies.
It’s unlikely Hurley’s fellow pros have an inkling of where most 30-year-olds with his background — in “math and economics merged” — are right now. He reluctantly concedes that “Wharton or Harvard,” and eventually Wall Street, is a not-unlikely path after five years of service. I’ve lived in Annapolis for years and our family has sponsored midshipmen, one with a similar academic profile. Here’s my semi-educated guess at an exam question for an economics-quant-game-theorist at Navy: “Three continents are destroyed, two in economic ruin. You command Earth’s last nuclear submarine. Save the world and stock market simultaneously. You have 10 minutes.”
For now, Hurley would just like to save some pars, finish as high as possible and survive a course of which he says, “I can’t think of one that was harder.” He can use all the help he can get, and he’s gotten some. “There was a lot of military, a lot of ‘Beat Armies’ getting thrown around there,” he said, grinning. “Somebody said, ‘Go Army.’ We had to correct him.”
In a world of pro athletes where it’s sometimes hard to find good example, Hurley may ultimately fail by some exalted standard, like future U.S. Open champion. Sometimes all those mental tools he has acquired can be a golf burden. “It’s very easy to overanalyze in this game,” he says.
But Hurley’s rank on the money list, or his performance the rest of this week, can’t be our only standard, can it? His wife, Heather, works with an orphanage in Ecuador. They have a biological son, Will, 5, and an adopted son from Ethiopia named Jacob, 3. Hurley works with a children’s camp in Honduras. And, good works aside, gradually he feels he’s gaining on this new alien life as a golf itinerant. “Getting comfortable out here,” he says. “I just want to get better — at everything. It’s all progress in little increments.”
That sounds like good game theory. Where does an opening 69 at Congressional fit into the picture? “Lets talk on Sunday,” Hurley said, “and we’ll see where it fits.”
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell