Billy Hurley III barely celebrated after his final par putt fell into the 18th hole to win the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club on Sunday. Perhaps, if he had let himself go, he had no idea what he would do. Few men have won a golf tournament — or any sports event — that wove together more powerful personal emotions, more conquering of self-doubt and more vindication of a still-grieving family. He did nothing because he felt so much. He kept his dignity and poise because, as in his whole life, as an officer, gentleman and golfer, those are the qualities he has chosen as his running lights.
Perhaps others might even have taken a dive into Congressional’s lake to celebrate their first victory on the PGA Tour, especially after torching this famous track with four impeccable days of 66-65-67-69 golf for a stunning 17-under-par 267, including a 35-yard chip-in at the par-4 15th hole and a 28-foot birdie putt at the par-5 16th that put him in a commanding three-shot lead. And even prompted a modest double-fist pump. “Probably the most emotion I have ever shown in my life,” he said.
This $1,242,000 win vaulted Hurley from the fringes of the sport, a fellow stuck at No. 607 in the world with half of his career spent in golf’s minor leagues, to the secure status of a tournament champion. Now, after playing the minor league Web.com Tour in three of his six years as a pro, he will be exempt on the PGA Tour through the 2018 season. He probably will play in the British Open next month and the Masters next year. After a career in which the 34-year-old never before had finished first, second or third on Tour, he will . . . he will get to do it all. And without the constant weight of being an accurate but short hitter, a streaky putter trying to keep his Tour card in a world of bombers.
Such simple sports jump-for-joy would barely touch Hurley’s complex composition of feelings. Perhaps, while hugging his wife, three children and mother on the final green, he might have burst into tears of satisfaction at his victory, mixed with the sadness that he says never entirely leaves him when he thinks about the suicide of his father last August. Last July, Hurley gave a press conference at this tournament, then played at Robert Trent Jones Golf Course, to ask for help because his father had gone missing for nine days — just got in his truck and drove away.
“I’m just hoping that there’s a story — that maybe he goes to PGATour.com to check my tee time or check my scores — and sees this and understands that, Dad, we love you and we want you to come home,” Hurley said then.
Contact was made, but within weeks Hurley’s father, a policeman for 25 years and a golf pro for 30 years, had died in Virginia of a self-inflicted wound. Since then the Hurley family has tried, to the degree anyone can, to get their minds around an event that seemed to bear little or no relationship to the rest of a life they’d known so well.
“I think now more than ever, we have a better understanding medically of how traumatic events affect your brain,” he said last winter in an interview with ESPN, reflecting on his father’s life as a policeman. “Sometimes we don’t understand the impact that stuff like that has on us.”
On Saturday, as he held the lead at Congressional, Hurley noticed that there were policemen following him, protecting him, so to speak. “Obviously I think about my dad a lot,” Hurley said after his round. “I was walking from 9 to 10, and I’ve never really had a whole lot of police officers following my group. You know, I’m not like that cool. But playing in the lead, they have a couple police officers following you around. It dawned on me, ‘Hey, this is what my dad did.’ He walked inside the ropes and did this at Presidents Cups [and other Washington-area events].”
As soon as Hurley sank his final clinching putt, partner Ernie Els, with whom Hurley had battled and finally outdueled head-to-head, came to the winner, put his arm on his shoulder and said, “I think your dad is looking down, really proud of you.”
Does a child who copes with the tragic death of a parent from depression or a similar disease have a dual desire to remember and remain true to the best of what that parent gave, while at the same time proving that the final chapter does not permanently stop the family from functioning and succeeding?
“All of the above,” Hurley said.
The military training and background probably didn’t hurt any, either. After that final putt, Hurley might even have felt an impulse to show his gratitude for the toughness under pressure and ability to focus when surrounded by distractions that he learned as a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.
“So mental toughness is kind of a big thing [in the Navy],” Hurley said dryly. “You either learn it at the Naval Academy, or you’re not there very long. So that definitely helps in adversity on the golf course.
“Then focus, too. When you’re driving a ship through the Suez Canal, it’s like ‘all eyes ahead,’ focused exactly [on] what we’re doing. Land on each side. You’re trying to keep it in the middle,” Hurley said.
At his victory news conference, Hurley was asked whether he really “drove” a ship through the Suez Canal or whether that was perhaps a slight exaggeration. “I see two Navy guys in the back” of the room, Hurley said. “One’s saying I can’t drive a ship. The other’s saying I can. Actually, I was really good at driving a ship — I won two ‘ship-handling awards,’ and when I was officer of the deck to drive the ship going through the canal — well, at my age, that’s not who you would have picked if I wasn’t really good at it.”
How big was that little ship? “Ten-thousand tons,” Hurley said.
To understand Hurley’s passion for golf, you have to grasp all the options he has passed up to pursue it. He was an academic all-American. As a student, with a major in quantitative economics specializing in game theory, he was so outstanding that the academy had him teach economics for two years. As an officer, he served five years in the fleet, including two years in the Persian Gulf, where he learned to consider “110 degrees in the shade a normal day.”
On Saturday night, friends advised Hurley that he probably shouldn’t let himself be distracted with phone calls or tweets. “I put my phone on silent. That drives my wife crazy,” Hurley said. “I saw that I got a call from ‘Admiral Mike Mullen.’ Well, when it’s the [former] chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you answer the phone.”
“The admiral was very kind. He said how proud the Naval Academy and the military is of me.”
So in a tournament dedicated to honoring the military, on a course almost midway between the town where he grew up (Leesburg, Va.) and his current home (Annapolis), Billy Hurley III made everyone proud. In an event where he supposedly had no chance, where his entire career record as a golfer said that, while he was accomplished, he was not going to beat the like of Els and Vijay Singh in a head-to-head shoot out at Congressional, the ramrod-straight 5-foot-10 Hurley stood taller than he ever has.
And considering all he has accomplished, everything he has been through in the past year and everyone he felt he was playing and winning this tournament for, that is mighty tall indeed.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.