WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – Inside the front gates of The Greenbrier which were draped in red, white and blue bunting, past the lampposts each adorned with two small American flags, nestled amongst this little slice of nostalgic Americana, a patriotic tale unfolded on this Independence Day.
At the eponymous PGA Tour event that bills itself as “America’s Resort,” there is a real American hero atop the leaderboard. Not one deemed as such simply because he’s popular or owns a nice smile or has earned lots of money, either.
Billy Hurley III is the only current player who has served military duty, attending the Naval Academy, then commissioned in the Navy for five years. He’s also the only player to successfully traverse this course in a mere 131 strokes so far, giving him the tournament lead on a perfectly fitting day.
“Anytime you play good, it's great,” says Hurley, who followed an opening 68 with a 63. “But certainly, there's special days of the year for our country. … Fourth of July has always been a special day for me just growing up, and kind of what it means for our independence. So it's kind of pretty cool, I guess, to shoot 7 under on the Fourth of July.”
From a young age, Hurley knew two things about his future: He wanted to attend the Naval Academy and he wanted to play on the PGA Tour. The problem, of course, is that those two things weren’t always intertwined; one doesn’t seamlessly lead to the other. The truth is, they were two very separate, independent dreams.
None of which stopped him from trying.
He applied to only one school and was admitted to the Naval Academy in 2000. He graduated in May of 2004, having won Patriot League Player of the Year honors and becoming one of the world’s top amateur golfers, then spent six months on the U.S.S. Gettysburg in Mayport, Fla., in between representing the United States in the 2004 Walker Cup and 2005 Palmer Cup.
Hurley turned professional in 2006, and while still on active duty competed in seven PGA Tour events on sponsor’s exemptions and through Monday qualifiers over those next two years. During that time, he submitted paperwork to be transferred to the Navy Reserve – “kind of like David Robinson,” he says of the ex-NBA center – but his request was denied.
And so he continued serving full-time. He spent two semesters teaching an Intro to Economics class. He served for two years on the U.S.S. Chung-Hoon, twice deployed during that time. In the Persian Gulf, off the coast of the South China Sea, through the Red Sea.
“[That was] probably the highlight of my days on the ship,” he beams. “I was actually the officer of the deck driving the ship through the Suez Canal, which was awesome.”
As you can imagine, driving a ship through the Suez Canal isn’t exactly conducive to honing a golf swing.
“Not working on the game that much, no,” he admits. “I tried to just kind of work out as much as I could, which wasn't even as much as you want to. It's completely a 60-70 hour a week kind of job.
“I was a recreational golfer. I probably averaged one round a month.”
Upon fulfilling his five-year commitment in the summer of 2009, Hurley set out to fulfill that other childhood dream. He played mini-tour golf for a year-and-a-half, then reached the Nationwide Tour in 2011, claiming the 25th and final spot for a promotion to the PGA Tour the next season.
As it turns out, maybe those two dreams weren’t so independent after all.
“The PGA Tour was the goal for me pretty much the entire time I was in the Navy,” explains Hurley, who still makes his home in Annapolis, Md. “That said, golf was completely a secondary kind of thing. I was a Naval officer first, and if you ask the people that I served with, they'd say that's for sure.”
They’d also probably say there’s a lot of pride in watching one of their own, a former lieutenant who once drove a ship through the Suez Canal, not only enjoying a successful career as a professional golfer, but leading on a day that means so much to the country.
During his round on Friday, he never stopped to realize the connection between his own patriotism and leading the tournament on the Fourth of July. He never allowed himself after any of his seven birdies to consider the significance of his performance.
It wasn’t until after the round was over that Hurley gave himself a chance to think of these things and the journey which has gotten him to this place.
“I don't have any regrets about the way that I did it,” he says. “I'd do it all over again the same way.”