2004: A golfer and a gentleman
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
When he was a college freshman, Billy Hurley took a sheet of paper and wrote a simple question. He has read it over and over, almost daily, for the past three-plus years. In the note, Hurley asked himself, “What have you done today to prepare yourself for the PGA Tour?”
You see, Hurley shares the same dream as most college golfers – to one day leave school, turn professional and pursue his ultimate goal. And many standout seniors will do so when the Class of 2004 begins its migration into the pro ranks this summer.
Hurley, however, won’t be among them.
It’s not because he has more school to finish – he owns a 3.69 GPA and this past season was a Division I Academic All-American – or that he is short on talent, desire or determination. He has proven he can play with the best amateurs in the country.
No, for Hurley, pro golf must take a back seat to good old Uncle Sam, in particular the U.S. Navy.
Hurley, 21, of Leesburg, Va., attends the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and after his graduation in May, faces a possible five-year tour of active duty.
“Right now it’s tough, knowing that a lot of the guys I’ve played against will soon be turning pro,” said Hurley, who won three tournaments in five starts this fall and is No. 7 in the Golfweek/ Sagarin College Rankings, posting a 315-7-4 overall record. “I definitely want to play pro golf and see how good I can be. That’s always been a goal of mine.”
Hurley still plans to pursue that goal, even if it’s five years from now. But he also hopes his chance might come sooner.
Hurley is looking into the Navy’s World Class Athlete Program, in which some standout athletes are given an opportunity to compete at a higher level while still fulfilling their Navy duties. In rare instances, members of the program have their military obligation shortened so they can compete in their sports.
That was the case with former Navy basketball player David Robinson, who was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs following his college career. Robinson served two years of active duty, then was released to play in the NBA, although he remained on an inactive duty list for the remainder of his commitment time.
Hurley plans to write letters stating his case to whomever he can, including the Secretary of the Navy, Gordon R. England. It’s a long shot, but one worth taking.
“There is no doubt I would love to try my hand at professional golf as soon as I can,” he said. “But I also know this is not about Billy Hurley. This is about what the Navy wants and what is best for the Navy.”
Listening to Hurley, you believe that statement comes from the heart. He says he will put as much energy and devotion into the Navy as he would playing golf, simply because he remembers what his dad once told him: “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you can become in whatever it is you are doing.”
Among the things Hurley has going for him is comfort and support from his family – parents Bill and Cheryl and three younger siblings.
“My family has been just great. They are behind me all the way, no matter what happens,” Hurley said. “Whether it’s my golf, school or the Navy, they are supportive.”
At Loudoun County High School in Leesburg, Hurley wasn’t on the hit lists of many college golf coaches. Although he was a first-team all-state selection his senior year, he had no national credentials.
Another factor that likely kept coaches away: Hurley’s wearing a Navy baseball cap his last two years of high school and making it known that he would attend the Naval Academy if accepted.
“He wasn’t really recruited, but once he got here, I knew I had something special in him,” said Navy men’s golf coach Pat Owen, who is in his 12th year at Annapolis. “We’re a mid-level Division I school and I hardly thought I landed a superstar in Billy Hurley.
“What impressed me most about him was his work ethic and his determination to be the best. He’s just a tireless worker, and the more he saw of what he could accomplish, the hungrier he got. And besides being a very talented golfer, he’s a fantastic person and a true gentleman.”
During his first three seasons at Navy, Hurley had a number of high finishes and earned all-Patriot League recognition. Still, outside that little circle, he was an unknown.
His big breakthrough came last summer at one of the country’s premier amateur tournaments, the Porter Cup in Lewiston, N.Y.
The year before, Hurley had sent his resume to tournament director Steve Denn, but was unable to land a spot in the starting field.
“He sent a follow-up letter to me in the spring and I was very impressed with the way he presented himself,” Denn said. “Playing at the Naval Academy, he doesn’t get a lot of exposure, and we always like to try to get guys like that in if we can to give them a chance.”
Hurley was placed on top of the alternate list, and as luck would have it, a spot opened up the week before the event.
Denn called Hurley the Saturday before the tournament’s Wednesday start, and the young midshipman hopped in his car and headed north.
He didn’t disappoint, shooting rounds of 65-68-68-71 to finish tied for seventh at 8-under 272 against one of the strongest amateur fields of the year.
Not bad considering it was Hurley’s first competition of the summer, as he had just completed a month of Navy training in Florida.
From the Porter Cup, Hurley went on to finish second in his 36-hole sectional qualifier for the U.S. Amateur, then made the most of his first U.S. Amateur appearance at Oakmont, where he turned in the second-lowest qualifying score among 312 contestants. After a 4-and-3 victory over Spencer Levin in the opening round of match play, Hurley took former U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and two-time U.S. Walker Cup team member Jerry Courville to the 18th hole before losing, 1 up, in the second round.
Billy Hurley was no longer unknown.
And if Hurley can keep up his pace this spring, he could be on his way to becoming Navy’s most recognized golfer.
Since the Naval Academy began its golf program in 1909, only three players have earned All-America status – Eric Utegaard in 1969, Dave Ziemba in 1977 and Aaron Wright in 1998. All received honorable mention status.
Hurley is on a path to raise that bar.
“When the fall started, I thought if I could get honorable mention (All-America), it would be great,” Hurley said. “But now I think I have to look higher.”
Added Owen: “If anyone could become Navy’s first All-American higher than honorable mention, it’s Billy Hurley. He had a great fall and I expect him to continue that type of play and intensity this spring. If he does, I can’t see how they can keep him off any of the first three teams.”
If he is left out, it likely would be for the simple fact that he doesn’t play for one of the more high-profile college golf programs.
Still, Hurley wouldn’t change his decision to go to Annapolis, or the obligation he faces once he graduates. In fact, he feels it was – and is – just what he needs, as a golfer and as a young man.
“I think coming to the Naval Academy was the best fit for me,” Hurley said. “I don’t think I’d be the player I am today if I went to a bigger school. I gained a lot of experience here and feel I matured a lot faster.
“The Academy taught me more mental toughness, hard work and dedication. It taught me to focus on the task at hand. I feel fortunate that I was able to come here and play golf.
“I certainly have no regrets."
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