ATHENS, Ga. – They all remember where they were when the news broke. Jason Gore was waiting on a runway. Carl Paulson was watching a baseball game. And Billy Hurley III was lying in his hotel room, hours away from a Monday qualifier, when his cellphone buzzed with a message:
We finally got bin Laden.
After exchanging a few more texts, after listening to President Barack Obama address the nation, after seeing impromptu celebrations all across the country . . . well, the former naval officer slept well that night.
“We tend to forget about stuff too soon, and we remembered the sacrifice,” Hurley said last week. “It’s nice to see patriotism restored in the American public.”
Funny thing, then, because Hurley never hit a shot at that Monday qualifier. About a half-hour before his 9 a.m. tee time, officials for the Nationwide Tour’s Stadion Classic at UGA notified Hurley that he had received the final sponsor exemption.
Seems they remembered, too.
In February, Hurley wrote a letter asking for a spot in the field. His handwritten note initially stood out because, “I have an enormous respect for anyone who sacrifices anything from their family time to, potentially, their life,” said Jud Doherty, the president of Stadion Money Management. “I have a huge soft spot for that.”
After bin Laden was killed May 1 by Navy SEALs, and with one free pass to give after the tour reshuffle, “I don’t know if it was karma or fate or luck,” Doherty said, “but it just lined up perfectly.”
And Hurley got the exemption.
“People forget that Billy’s not just a Navy guy; he’s a good player,” Gore said. “It’s a great week to be an American. Hell, it’s a great week to be a freedom fighter.”
Hurley, 28, was a sophomore at the U.S. Naval Academy during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He remembers standing in the basement of Bancroft Hall, being fitted for a white dress jacket. He remembers rushing to his dorm room, only to watch the Twin Towers fall. He remembers wondering whether his roommate’s father – who was working in the Pentagon at the time – was OK.
“It made the war more real,” Hurley said.
Upon graduation, in 2004, he was aboard a destroyer in Bahrain, and he was in the Persian Gulf, and he was off the coast of Djibouti, and he was in the Red Sea, and he was near the heart of terrorism in the Middle East. “Those were tense times,” he said.
In June 2009, after his mandatory five-year tour of duty, he decided to pursue a professional golf career, despite playing only five rounds in a two-year span. An accomplished amateur during his time in Annapolis, Hurley had won the 2004 Byron Nelson Award as the nation’s top collegian and played on the victorious ’05 U.S. Walker Cup team with Anthony Kim and J.B. Holmes, among others. It didn’t take long for Hurley to regain his form: Sixteen months after he was aboard the USS Chung-Hoon, he medaled at the second stage of 2010 Q-School.
He says he still stays in touch with a few of his former Navy pals. He knows of the special unit known as Team Six – the military operatives who killed bin Laden in Pakistan – and they’re “physical specimens of epic proportions. They’re literally the best people the Navy has to offer.”
That much even titanium-heads can appreciate. Early last week, many players here kept checking their phones. They kept watching CNN. They kept waiting for more details to surface.
And, like 9/11, they all remembered where they were when the news broke. Gore had just touched down in Atlanta, and Twitter was historically atwitter. “It was kind of uncomfortable,” Gore said, “because I’m thinking, ‘Should I tell these guys next to me that bin Laden is dead?’ ” Paulson was watching the Phillies-Mets game when his neighbor called at 10:45 p.m. A few minutes later, fans in Philadelphia began chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
But Doherty didn’t know of bin Laden’s death until he opened the morning paper last Monday. Above the fold, in massive, black letters, was the biggest news story of the year. Doherty immediately thought of Hurley and that handwritten letter.
“I’m not a hero of any sort,” Hurley said. “I’m just a guy who had a great time doing five years in the Navy and probably would still be doing that if I didn’t want to come back for golf. And the thing is, the better I play, the more exposure I’ll give the military.”
Hurley (76-74) missed the cut at the Stadion by six strokes, but the result mattered little. Because for one week, at least, we remembered his sacrifice to get here.