ORLANDO, Fla. – Billy Hurley III will always remember where he made his first start as a professional golfer. It was back in 2006, a couple of years after Hurley graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, and Hurley had received a sponsor exemption into the Bay Hill Invitational.
Arnold Palmer, who served with the U.S. Coast Guard for the three years, took a liking to Hurley, who spent five years with the Navy, spending two years stationed in Pearl Harbor and deploying to the Persian Gulf near the end of his service (2009). The two played a round together at Bay Hill the winter before the 2006 edition at Arnie’s Place. A few months later, Hurley was in a press conference with Palmer talking about his special invitation.
Hurley made the cut that year and tied for 43rd.
“Ironically, that’s actually my best finish ever here at Bay Hill,” Hurley said with a laugh.
Hurley, who has now been back to play the Arnold Palmer Invitational seven times, said a lot has changed at Bay Hill. In 2006, he remembers hitting a 7-iron into a back-right pin at No. 18. Wednesday, he hit 2-hybrid to a middle flag. Of course, there’s also the absence of “The King” himself.
But a lot has remained the same. Much like Palmer extended an invite to a young Hurley back in 2006, he has done the same for many other young players, both American and international, over the years.
“That was obviously what Mr. Palmer wanted for the tournament,” said Graeme McDowell, who tied for second in his API debut in 2005. “… It was one of my first big tournaments that I ever had an opportunity to play in.”
Webb Simpson played the 2006 and ’08 tournaments at Bay Hill, his first two PGA Tour starts, as an amateur thanks to winning the Southern Amateur in 2005 and ’07. Although the API has done away with its Southern Amateur champion invite, it added an Arnold Palmer Cup exemption last year. (Vanderbilt senior Matthias Schwab of Austria will make his PGA Tour debut this week because of it.)
The U.S. Amateur winner also annually gets to play Bay Hill. Matthew Fitzpatrick, Kelly Kraft and Ben An, all in the field this week as established pros, are among that group, which now includes last year’s U.S. Am champ, Curtis Luck.
“This will be my first U.S. PGA Tour event and I honestly couldn’t think of a better event or place,” Luck said. “Bay Hill, I remember watching this as a kid and to be here playing is just amazing.”
Then there are the numerous other invites to players looking to get their footing on the PGA Tour. Players such as Aaron Baddeley, who played the 2000 Bay Hill Invitational, his second Tour start, after winning the 1999 Australian Open as an amateur. Or another Aussie, teenager Ryan Ruffels, who made his third start as a pro last year at Bay Hill.
“It’s amazing in terms of my career to be able to be part of the last Arnold Palmer Invitational when he was around and the first one without him; I’m very, very lucky in that sense,” Ruffels said. “He was so nice. He thanked me so much for being here and everything. Obviously, it was my honor to be here.”
Or Robby Shelton, a former All-American who turned pro out of Alabama last summer, who hasn’t gotten a Tour start since last fall.
“He was one of my heroes, he really was,” Shelton said.
Shelton played on two U.S. Arnold Palmer Cup teams and a Walker Cup. Before heading across the pond to represent his country at the 2015 Walker Cup, Shelton and the U.S. team paid Palmer a visit at his home in Latrobe, Pa.
For Shelton, he’ll always remember when former Vanderbilt standout Hunter Stewart asked Palmer what his favorite drink was.
“Ketel One with a lemon twist,” Shelton said.
Shelton and the rest of the field got a special bottle of Ketel One vodka in their lockers this week. When does Shelton plan to open his?
“After I finish well, hopefully,” Shelton said.
For Shelton, it really isn’t a matter of hoping. Echoing the sentiment of many young players who have been given a chance at this tournament over the years, Shelton said, “I feel like I need to play well.”