Hurley III earns PGA Tour card at N'wide finale

Billy Hurley III

Billy Hurley III

Editor's note: For a complete look at the 25 Nationwide Tour graduates, click here.

• • •

CHARLESTON, S.C. – Billy Hurley III stood at the edge of the practice putting green, craning for a view of the final hole of Daniel Island Club’s Ralston Course. His fate was being determined there, just a couple hundred yards away.

Behind Hurley and his fellow spectators, a handful of children blissfully blasted balls across the practice green, unaware of the importance of the proceedings taking place across the small pond. Hurley’s future as a professional golfer, once interrupted by five years of service in the Navy, now was to be determined by the steady hands of a 28-year-old on the verge of his first PGA Tour card.

Scott Brown’s chances of winning the Nationwide Tour Championship had passed by the time he came to No. 18 on a chilly afternoon in Charleston. His approach to the par-5 may have been the most important shot hit all day, though. Par there would complete Hurley’s storybook rise from the Persian Gulf to the PGA Tour.

Brown did one better, hitting his wedge shot to 3 feet. When Brown made his birdie putt, Hurley thrust his arm into the air and shouted “Yes!” and lifted up his sons, Will, 4, and Jacob, 2. Had Brown, who already was assured a PGA Tour card, bogeyed the final hole, Sweden's David Lingmerth would have passed Hurley for the 25th and final Tour card available.

“I don’t think I’ve ever cheered louder for another shot in my life,” Hurley said. His friend and fellow Nationwide Tour graduate Mark Anderson joked that it was the best shot Hurley had ever hit.

It’s hardly the most impressive task Hurley has accomplished, though. He was a Navy lieutenant on the USS Chung-Hoon, serving several months in the Persian Gulf. He completed his naval service in July 2009.

“The pressure is just so different,” Hurley said. “I’ve probably felt more pressure in the Navy. You have people who are sleeping at night, depending on you to make the right call and turn the ship in the right direction. There’s no comparison.”

Q-School is the best comparison for the final day of the Nationwide Tour Championship. But that six-day stress test is based only on scores. Simple math determines who gets a promotion. The Nationwide Tour’s yearlong money list, and the season finale’s $1 million purse, means players separated by several holes shift in and out of the top 25 as they move up and down the leaderboard, their fates often determined by their peers.

“You start thinking about that one missed shot in Midland that cost you,” said one player agent.

Hurley finished his round 90 minutes before the final group, which included Brown. Hurley’s status was in question when he finished, but he seemed safe when Lingmerth, making a late charge for the tournament title and a Tour card that two weeks ago seemed impossible, bogeyed Nos. 15 and 16.

“I missed a couple shots coming in for whatever reason. It sucked a little bit. I’ll be all right,” said Lingmerth, who finished third at the previous week’s Winn-Dixie Jacksonville Open just to get into the Tour Championship.

But, as always happens when players are competing with their careers on the line, strange things started to unfold. Lingmerth, who needed to finish solo third or better to graduate, was fourth when he finished his round. Then Daniel Chopra hit his tee shot out-of-bounds at 18 to make double bogey and drop into a tie with Lingmerth. If Brown bogeyed one of the two finishing holes, Lingmerth’s increase in earnings would've been enough to bump Hurley out of the top 25.

Brown’s approach to the 17th hole bounded into a bad lie behind the green. He left his chip shot about 10 feet short, but made the putt before making birdie on No. 18.

Brown finished second at 8-under 280, two shots behind 42-year-old Ken Duke, whose final-round 68 was the best of the day by two shots. Chopra, who also earned a return to the PGA Tour, tied for third with Lingmerth at 6-under 282.

Brown easily earned his first PGA Tour card. Duke’s victory moved him from 36th on the money list to No. 7. Duke, a three-time runner-up on the PGA Tour, returns to that circuit after two seasons on the Nationwide Tour. Duke’s $180,000 winner’s check represents 57.4 percent of his season earnings.

Hurley, who’d started the week 25th on the money list, ended there after all this drama. The hard-luck character? James Nitties, who finished 26th.

Nitties started the season’s final week at 23rd on the money list but dropped out after a tie for 35th. The week before, he was in position to put away his Tour card, one shot out of the lead halfway through the Winn-Dixie Jacksonville Open. He got ill after the second round and spent the night dry-heaving. He woke up about three hours before his third-round tee time, but feeling lightheaded, he went to lay back in bed, not meaning to fall back asleep. He awoke 20 minutes before his tee time. Unfortunately, he was staying a half-hour from the course after a poor Priceline bet.

“I’m not going to say I had the clearest mind, but I had every opportunity to get my card here this week,” Nitties said. “It’s a pity, but no one’s going to feel sorry for me. It was all my fault. It’s just one of those things where I have to suck it up and prove I can get back there through Q-School.”

Nitties was the only player to be bounced from the top 25 on the final week. There was less money-list movement than at past season finales. Duke was the only player to earn a Tour card after starting the last week outside the top 25. Still, something crazy always happens when Tour cards are on the line. This year was no exception.

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