HONOLULU – He’s been back to Oahu before, strolled the beaches of Waikiki and the piers of Pearl Harbor to recall a life that almost doesn’t seem real any longer.
On Tuesday afternoon, when he made what has now become an annual visit to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, there was added significance. Billy Hurley hasn’t changed, well, he’s happy and after an emotionally draining few years, that shouldn’t be overlooked.
But there will be more attention paid to the former U.S. Navy lieutenant this visit. This is, after all, where he served two years on the USS Chung-Hoon, a 10,000-ton guided-missile destroyer, which is currently docked at Pearl Harbor, about a 20-minute drive from the emerald green fairways of Waialae Country Club and this week’s Tour stop.
Unlike his previous visits, Hurley returns with a new title – PGA Tour champion - following his breakthrough victory at last year’s Quicken Loans National. In his signature-subdued style, the 34-year-old shrugs when asked if this return is different.
“Hopefully, I’ll be sharper,” he smiled, a nod to his slow start last week at the SBS Tournament of Champions where he finished 29th out of 32 players.
Still, he knows times have changed, even if he hasn’t.
“Any time you have success and more notoriety, people like you coming back more, its just human nature,” he said. “It escalates it a little bit.”
It’s not as though Hurley is uncomfortable with the spotlight, but filling a room isn’t exactly his style and being back in Hawaii is a reminder of a distant life before he became a Tour staple.
During his two years in Hawaii, Hurley figures he played golf about once a month at an embarrassment of military golf course riches, including Navy Marine Golf Club, the layout at Hickam Air Force Base and the Kaneohe Klipper Golf Course on the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay.
“They have really good greens and two holes that are right on the cliffs, they call it the Pebble Beach of the military golf courses,” Hurley said. “Fantastic views.
Hurley’s smile brightens as he remembers his time in Hawaii, a time before the complications and concerns of Tour life became his primary concern.
He hasn’t spent a lot of time smiling the last few years. It was at the Quicken Loans National in 2015, ironically, where Hurley learned that his father, Willard Hurley Jr., had gone missing.
After numerous pleas to help find his father in the media, Willard Hurley was spotted in Texas and returned home to Virginia. Two weeks later, Hurley Jr. was found dead near the Potomac River from a self-inflicted gunshot. He was 61.
His victory a year later at Congressional was predictably emotional. “It's been a hard year. It's been a really hard year, so it's nice to have something go well,” he said at the time.
Slowly, however, he’s come to realize that he could enjoy his victory and honor his father, that the two events were mutually exclusive. In many ways, coming back to Hawaii, visiting the Chung-Hoon, which he served on in the Persian Gulf to protect Iraqi oil platforms, allowed Hurley to come full circle.
“They are in dry dock right now, so see the ship is all out of the water. It will be cool,” he beamed.
He concedes his profile is considerably higher this time, that his Sunday last June at Congressional transformed him from an interesting story to a bona fide personality. It’s his elevated Q-Rating that he hopes to leverage in his ongoing attempts to help those who serve through various charitable organizations, including Birdies For the Brave and the SEAL Legacy Foundation.
“Maybe I’m a little more recognized on Tour than I was three years ago and so hopefully we can make that translate into more military folks knowing about me,” he said.
Certainly more people, both in and out of the military, know Hurley’s story, from the Naval Academy and serving in the Persian Gulf to the PGA Tour and his first victory.
It’s the kind of stardom that never really seemed achievable when he used to play golf on Oahu for fun, not oversized paychecks. But that seems like a different life now.