In a year of fairytale first-time winners on the PGA Tour, Billy Hurley III, a Navy grad and military man, winning the Quicken Loans National on a sponsor invitation not far from where he learned the game has to take the cake.
“Couldn’t script a better one for me to win my first Tour win,” said Hurley, who closed with a 2-under 69 at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. “Grew up on one side of D.C., live on the other side of D.C. and then at the premier military event.”
Hurley, 34, entered the week ranked No. 607 in the Official World Golf Rankings, hadn’t finished better than T-41 in his past 11 events, and admitted that he and his wife had talked retirement plans.
No matter, Hurley already was one of the Tour’s success stories. A 2004 graduate of the Naval Academy with a quantitative economics degree, Hurley put his ambitions of competing at the highest level on hold to honor his military obligations. A club headcover of the academy’s goat mascot doesn’t begin to describe his loyalty. He served aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Persian Gulf, Red and China Seas and Pearl Harbor in Hawaii during his five-year hitch, which concluded in 2009. Hurley, who won two ship-handling awards doing his Navy stint, said he learned to keep his focus steering a ship through the Suez Canal.
“If I wasn’t really good at it, you know, you would have picked somebody a little senior to me on the ship to do that,” he said.
Hurley made six Tour starts before he pursued his pro career in earnest, and finally earned his Tour card by finishing 25th on the Web.com Tour money list in 2011. All week at his hometown event, he felt the love from a tournament that goes out of its way to pay homage to the military. All week, he heard fans yell, “24112,” the zip code of the post office on the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., the city he continues to call home. When Hurley hit his approach at the ninth, a fan in the gallery screamed, “Beat Army!”
Those weren’t the only Midshipmen pulling for him. On the eve of the final round, Hurley was sitting on his bed, reading a book. He’d set his phone on silent, but noticed an incoming call from none other than Admiral Mike Mullen.
“I kind of sat there for a second and I was like, you know what, when the (former) chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff calls, you answer the phone,” Hurley said.
Admiral Mullen was on a fishing trip in Montana, but he took the time to make a short call and say how proud he was of Hurley. In years past, Hurley likely would’ve fielded such a call from his father, Willard Hurley II, a retired police sergeant, who had introduced the game to his son and was Billy’s biggest supporter.
“It was a big, big part of our relationship,” Hurley told Golfweek in December. “He would pace up and down. We would joke that it was a spectator sport, to watch my dad watch golf.”
But last July, during the week of the Quicken Loans National, Hurley spoke not of growing up in Leesberg, Va., or his military background, but rather made a public plea seeking help in locating the whereabouts of his father, who had gone missing. Thanks to the accompanying attention his story generated, Hurley’s father, 61, was found on July 31 monitoring his son’s scores on a public-library computer in Texarkana, Texas. He told police that he was on vacation. He returned to Leesburg, but on Aug. 13, his body was found 12 miles from his home, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Hurley was devastated, but played through the pain in a futile attempt to regain his Tour card for the coming season. (He finished No. 135 on the FedEx Cup standings and failed to earn full status at the Web.com Finals.)
Hurley credited his ball-striking prowess at Congressional (he ranked first in strokes gained: tee to green and approach to the green) to the hours he toiled this winter in the 600-square-foot golf room and gym he built in the basement of his family’s new house.
“I really worked hard on my swing hitting into the screen there. I put the screen too close to the wall and now I’ve got a hole in the drywall, but we’ll figure that out later,” he said.
This year’s improbable winners include Vaughn Taylor overcoming a six-stroke deficit to win for the first time in 11 years, Brian Stuard winning on a Monday playoff in his 120th start, and 38-year-old journeyman Jim Herman holding his first trophy in 16 years as a professional. Each had their moment of heroics, but none matched Hurley’s for the dramatic. He withstood two World Golf Hall of Fame members – Ernie Els, who was seeking his 20th Tour title, and Vijay Singh, who was seeking his first since 2008 – and Spain’s Jon Rahm, who had a chance to win in his professional debut, but couldn’t get the putts to fall and finished in a share of third place with Bill Haas.
The outcome remained in doubt after Hurley, the 54-hole leader, made a 3-putt bogey at the 12th that trimmed his lead to one stroke. But he took control at the 15th hole when his ball rested in the fairway, 35 yards short of the green. His pitch hopped twice and started tracking to the hole.
“I thought that the crowd there was just giving me some courtesy applause like it was going to get close,” Hurley said.
The result was better than that. His ball went in for a birdie. No one was more surprised than Hurley, who broke into spontaneous celebration with fist pumps flying.
“That’s probably like the most emotion I’ve ever shown in my life,” he said with a laugh. “The people who know me and served with me actually will tell you that’s probably true.”
That he buried a 27-foot birdie putt on the ensuing hole iced a three-stroke victory over Singh, who closed with 65 to finish second. Els, who played alongside Hurley in the final group and finished fifth, congratulated Hurley and the two men embraced.
“He said something like, ‘You know, I think your dad’s looking down really proud of you,’ ” Hurley said.
Time to give those hasty retirement talks a rest as Hurley now is the proud owner of a two-year Tour exemption, and spots in the Bridgestone Invitational, British Open, PGA Championship, Tournament of Champions, and a first trip to the Masters.
No less than Tiger Woods, the Quicken Loans’ host, called Hurley’s victory the story of the year. But the way this season is playing out, let’s just call him the latest and most improbable champion this year. However you want to frame it, it’s a long way from his plebe summer at the Naval Academy when he told one of his teammates he was going to play on the PGA Tour.
“He kind of chuckled at me,” Hurley said, “and now to have won on the PGA Tour, unbelievable.”