U.S. Naval Veteran Hurley Gaining Major Experience

Billy Hurley III shot a 5-over 75 in the third round of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 but is learning the demands of a major championship. (Copyright USGA/Steven Gibbons)

Billy Hurley III shot a 5-over 75 in the third round of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 but is learning the demands of a major championship. (Copyright USGA/Steven Gibbons)

Saturday, June 14, 2014

By Stuart Hall

VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – Billy Hurley III took a tour of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., following his freshman year of high school, and just like that his top college destination was determined. 

“I just fell in love with everything it stood for, everything about the place,” he said. “I only applied to one school, because that’s where I knew I was going to go.”

Hurley’s time at the Naval Academy and service to the United States is well chronicled, given that he is the first Naval Academy graduate to play on the PGA Tour.

Hurley earned a degree in quantitative economics, was the Patriot League Golfer of the Year in 2004 and played for the 2005 USA Walker Cup Team. He was commissioned as a lieutenant after graduation and served five years, most of it aboard U.S. Navy ships. 

Even though Hurley, who is making his major championship debut at this week’s 114th U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2, is a midshipman, he could easily appreciate the USGA’s Flag Day ceremony.

The American flag was first unfurled on June 14, 1777, two years after the forming of the U.S. Army. Saturday’s ceremony honored the military presence at Fort Bragg, approximately 30 miles away from Pinehurst.

Given Hurley's military backstory, playing in America’s national championship is something he takes seriously.

“No doubt, this is something special, and something I will always remember,” he said.

Hurley’s early recollections of the U.S. Open are of the par-3 finishing hole at Congressional Country Club in 1997; Payne Stewart standing on the 18th green in the second round, chomping gum as he watched his 8-foot birdie attempt roll 25 feet past the hole at The Olympic Club in 1998; and of Stewart cutting the sleeves off his rain jacket while on the range prior to the 1999 U.S. Open’s final round, which Stewart won here on No. 2. 

Hurley’s naval background has been at the core of his commitment and confidence throughout his burgeoning golf career.

When he was scratching out paychecks on the mini-tours early in his career, just qualifying for a U.S. Open may have been enough. Now that he’s a card-carrying member on the PGA Tour for a second time, his expectations have risen.

"Making the cut was good for my first major,” said Hurley, who sat on the 5-over 145 cut line on Friday and shot a 5-over 75 Saturday morning.

“Just playing is not the goal anymore. Playing more and more in these conditions, I’m learning what I have to do with my game, different shots I need to be able to hit.”

That Hurley, 32 and married with two children, even qualified for this week is a testament to his belief in his own talent.

Four years ago, during a mini-tour event in western North Carolina, Hurley remembers walking up the eighth fairway, turning to his fellow competitor and saying he might be finished. 

Hurley was speaking in the broader spectrum of his career, not that particular round.

He went on to win that week, and had a similar experience several months later when he won the second stage of the PGA Tour’s Qualifying Tournament after another “serious-ish” discussion about the future with his wife.

The tipping point came a year later during his debut on the then-Nationwide Tour. He enjoyed a stretch of tournaments where he recorded a top-five and second-place finish. 

"I was like, ‘OK, we’re going in the right direction,’” said Hurley, who initially played on the PGA Tour in 2012. "It’s just been a steady progression from then.”

Hurley has posted two top-10 finishes and made the cut in five of his last six events on Tour, including three straight prior to this week. With this U.S. Open experience in his pocket, he now eyes qualifying for the British Open and PGA Championship. 

“You want to play four days and get a little more experience, and I’ve been able to do that,” said Hurley about making the most of this week’s opportunity. “There have been a couple of shots where inexperience got me a little bit yesterday and today. I want to play a ton of majors, a ton of Opens in my career.”

Hurley knows what he wants, and history says he’ll get it.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has appeared on USGA websites.

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