By Leonard Shapiro
Its going to be a very merry Christmas and an extremely happy new year for Billy Hurley III, the former Naval Academy golfer who has finally achieved a lifelong dream to play full time on the PGA Tour.
Hurley, a native of Leesburg, Va., and a 2004 Navy graduate, earned his playing privileges on the tour by finishing 25th on the money list for the 2011 Nationwide Tour season, earning the very last spot available to punch his ticket to the Big Show. Only the top 25 Nationwide finishers get to play on the regular PGA Tour the following season.
Hurley accomplished that feat at the age of 29, and he will instantly become one of the more compelling stories among the rookie class of 2012. After all, how many of his colleagues teeing it up next year can boast of having spent two years on a Navy destroyer protecting oil platforms from terrorist attacks off the Iraq coast.
Hurleys long journey to the tour was completed in the Nationwide Tour Championship on Oct. 30 at the Daniel Island Club near Charleston, S.C. He tied for 18th, punctuated by a birdie at the 72nd hole that provided a 13,040 payday and earned him enough money to finish a comfortable 12,891 ahead of the man who ended up 26th, Brett Wetterich. Hurley had started the week only 3,151 ahead of Wetterich, who imploded on the weekend, shooting 78-81 in the last two rounds and tying or 53rd.
It was a pretty nerve-racking day, Hurley admitted the other day. A lot of things could have happened that would have kept me out of the top 25, but it all worked out in the end.
Hurley finished playing about 90 minutes ahead of the leaders and had to sweat out all manner of heart-fluttering scenarios before he knew his tour card was secure. In the end, when second place finisher Scott Brown saved his par at the 17th hole with a 12-foot putt and then birdied the 18th with a four-footer, Hurleys closest challenger, Swedens David Lingmerth, was unable to finish any better than a tie for third, and could not catch him for the 25th and last spot on the money list. If Lingmerth had finished first or second, Hurley would have been on the outside looking in next season.
Thats a position Hurley had known for far too long after he graduated from the academy. He had a distinguished collegiate career, winning the Byron Nelson Award as the nations top collegiate golfer and earning All-American honors as well. He was a member of the 2005 Walker Cup team, playing with teammates like Anthony Kim, Jeff Overton and J.B. Holmes, all of whom went on to carve out successful careers on the PGA Tour.
But Hurley, as a Naval Academy graduate, had to take another path. He had a five-year military commitment to contend with, and playing golf full-time was hardly compatible with a lifestyle that included being a combat electronics officer aboard a guided missile cruiser, teaching economics at the Academy, and then being stationed for two years at Pearl Harbor and being deployed to the Persian Gulf.
Before being sent there, Hurley had petitioned the Department of the Navy to join the Naval Reserve in lieu of the final two years of his commitment. He was hoping to jumpstart his golf career over those two years, while at the same time serving as a walking, talking recruitment poster for the Navy. However, that request was turned down, and the last two years of his five-year hitch he rarely was able to play after shipping out to sea.
As a civilian, Hurley spent most of the 2010 season trying to get his game back into shape, playing the mini tour circuit and occasionally getting sponsors exemptions into Nationwide or PGA Tour events. Last year, after going through PGA Tour Qualifying School, he had full status on the Nationwide circuit, and obviously made the most of that opportunity by earning 180,191 in official money and that coveted 25th spot on the money list.
Hurley, who lives in Annapolis with his wife Heather and two toddler sons, insists that he has no regrets about how things have turned out, even if so many of his college playing peers got a much better head start to their professional careers.
Im very happy with the way this has all unfolded, he said. I enjoyed my job in the Navy, and if I wasnt playing golf, Id probably still be in the Navy. But the way it turned out really gives me kind of a unique platform. Its a good story, and I plan to share my story. It gives me the opportunity to share my life and my faith and all the things weve built our family around.
Hurley isnt exactly sure when he will make his 2012 debut. Hed like to think it will be in the Sony Open in Hawaii in January, and has applied for a sponsors exemption into the field. Because of his status as the 25th and last man in, he may have some difficulty getting into some fields along the way, competing for spots with Nationwide and tour school graduates. But hes also confident that hell be able to play at lweast 25 events this season, more than enough to give him a chance to keep his playing privileges if he can finish in the top 125 of the money list.
Hurley has plenty of goals on his agenda. Obviously, hed love to win a golf tournament and earn the automatic two-year exemption that goes with it.
If I can do that, everything else will fall into place, he said. My main goal is to try to get in the hunt as much as I can. If I can keep my card, Ill be pretty happy about that. And some rookie has to be rookie of the year. That would be a pretty cool thing, too.
There will be some hard courses for me. Im not the longest guy in the world (he averages about 280 yards off the tee). But some courses my strengths will help me do better. My short game and putting has always been the best part of my game. But I have no doubt that I can compete on the PGA Tour. Right now, its all good. Im a better golfer now than I was a year ago, and as long as I can keep improving, I think Ill be all right.