It was a matter of chance, a connection that lodged Billy Hurley III’s foot in the door and elevated the Naval junior officer from weekend golfer to full-blown pro with a debut at Bay Hill Club in 2006.
Stationed in Bayport, Fla., Hurley found time to play at Arnold Palmer’s home course, keeping his game sharp during his five-year military commitment after an illustrious college career at the Naval Academy. Often matched up with a high-school aged Sam Saunders, Palmer’s grandson, Hurley got to know “The King” himself.
Pat Owen, Hurley’s former golf coach at Navy, remembers that relationship leading to the offer of a lifetime.
“Billy,” Palmer told Hurley, “if you can get the Navy to let you turn pro, I can give you a sponsor’s invitational into Bay Hill next year.”
Hurley took the chance, the Navy gave him permission while he was still on active duty, and he shot a 1-under 287, making the cut in his first tournament before an 18-month deployment interrupted the early progress of a burgeoning professional golf career.
But the time away from the sport helped cultivate Hurley’s drive to find prolonged PGA Tour starts when he returned.
“Just that experience of not having golf might have made that goal burn even brighter inside of him, you know what I mean?” Owen said. “Because he had that taste of success.”
And his early tournament experience, coupled with a tour at sea, has helped motivate Hurley during the uncertainty that followed losing his Tour card at the end of last summer.
Hurley will get the chance to play this week at Pebble Beach, though — a course Palmer helped restore in preparation of the 2010 U.S. Open — after finishing tied for the lead at the Woodmont Country Club sectional in Rockville, Md., with a 3-under 141 on June 3. It’s a chance to find some continuity in what has been an otherwise stop-and-start season, flowing from the qualifier to the Canadian Open to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific.
It’s a pace — and an event — Hurley feels he can thrive in.
“It’s not so much of a, like, ‘Wow, I’m going to the U.S. Open,’” Hurley said. “It’s like, ‘I belong in the U.S. Open.’”
Still, there’s an added perspective that comes from his five-year commitment to the Navy, postponing the rest of his professional career until after he completed his service.
“Ten years ago right now I would’ve been somewhere around Singapore,” Hurley said. “If you would’ve said, ‘Ten years from now you’re going to go to the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach,’ I would’ve been like, ‘OK, sign me up.’”
Hurley said by his senior year at the Naval Academy, he figured he had a shot to go pro following his service time. He captained the 2004 Walker Cup team and earned Patriot League MVP honors that year.
For Owen, he realized Hurley’s opportunity slightly earlier. The coach remembers receiving a phone call from Hurley one night in July 2003, an unusual occurrence during the summer as most Midshipmen have limited phone access during training. The coach’s first instinct was to ask his top player if everything was all right.
That’s when he heard Hurley had shot a first-round 65 at the Porter Cup and backed it up by finishing tied for seventh with an 8-under 272.
“I was like, ‘Holy smokes. That’s incredible,’” Owen said.
It took until 2012 — nine years after that strong Porter Cup showing — before Hurley found continued success on the PGA Tour, though. And Hurley’s path back to the U.S. Open for the first time since 2016 hasn’t been easy, either.
The 37-year-old appeared in at least 20 tournaments each season between 2014 and 2018. But when he lost his Tour card last year, after earning it by winning the Quicken Loans National in 2016, this season has proven to be tougher. He has managed eight starts so far and expects to reach about 15, taking his opportunities where he can get them.
He opted to fight for places on the PGA Tour rather than go to the Web.com Tour qualifying school because he feels he has “better status on the PGA Tour.” If he plays well in the select events he starts, he can play his way back into the highest level.
But that also adds pressure to each event, and frequently he’s not given much notice before tournaments, creating hectic last-minute travel. He didn’t find out he got in the RBC Canadian Open field until June 3 (the Monday before the RBC started), Owen said, the same day Hurley secured a spot in the U.S. Open.
“You know you’re not going to get as many starts,” Hurley said. “There’s not a great rhythm and flow to the year. It’s kind of in-and-out and in-and-out, and you don’t really get that couple in a row where you can kind of get momentum going.”
He’ll finally get to string starts together with the U.S. Open this week, coming off an even-par 140 at the Hamilton Golf & Country Club, where he missed the cut by two. But he’s looking forward to playing Pebble Beach again — a course he considers a “proper place for a U.S. Open” — and tees off at 10:18 a.m. ET from the 10th tee in Thursday’s first round.
After a five-year commitment in the Navy, getting as far as Hurley has is an accomplishment, his former Midshipmen coach thinks. For Hurley, however, the same drive for golf he fostered during his Navy days keeps him going between starts, with or without a Tour card.
“If his career were to end tomorrow, I think we would all define it as a very successful one,” Owen said. “But I think that he’s still hungry for more.”