Billy Hurley III: The only veteran on Tour tells his story on the 4th of July

Billy Hurley III shot a clean, 7-under 63 in Friday’s second round at the Greenbrier Classic to get to 9-under par. That gave him a one-shot lead over Kevin Chappell and Chris Stroud. Troy Matteson is in 4th by himself after a spectacular 9-under 61.

But on this 4th of July — Independence Day in the United States — Hurley’s story stretches beyond just a good day on a golf course:

“You know, anytime you play good, it’s great; right?  But certainly, you know, there’s special days of the year for our country, and having served our country and being the only person playing this week who has served, only military veteran on TOUR, it adds something to it.”

“4th of July has always been a special day for me just growing up, and kind of what it means for our independence and that kind of stuff.  So you know, it’s kind of pretty cool, I guess, to shoot 7‑under on the 4th of July.”

A graduate of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, Hurley is on his second attempt to play on the PGA Tour having won his card in 2012 and again this year. How that all happened is a great story: 

“As a about eighth, ninth grader, I pretty much wanted to go to the Naval Academy.  I only applied to one school.  I only wanted to go to one place, and I guess fortunately I got in.”

“Just kind of fell in love with the Naval Academy, and the tradition, honor, courage, commitment, all the ideals and the whole place really.  It was definitely the right school for me.”

“I wasn’t an AJGA All‑American kind of golfer who was certainly putting on hold a career in golf to do this.  I mean I obviously became a very nice player in college, but it wasn’t like one of those sure things, like some of the guys out here who were pretty much going to be out here since they were 17 years old kind of thing.”

“So you know, I don’t have any regrets about the way that I did it.  I’d do it all over again the same way.”

It was a long, circuitous, 5-year journey from the graduation ceremony at the Academy to the PGA Tour. Having spent three and a half years myself bobbing around the oceans on a destroyer out of the same home port, his story resonated for me. He was the Officer of the Deck when he “drove” the ship through the Suez Canal. As the best helmsman on my ship, I would have been the guy he would have been giving heading orders to:

“I graduated May 2004, commissioned in the Navy.  And then I spent a little bit of time with the golf team, kind of after I graduated, just helping out with the golf team.”

“I went to a ship in Mayport, Florida, USS GETTYSBURG, Cruiser, CG 64.  I was only there for — I was only there for about six months because then the Navy made the decision to let me try and make the Walker Cup team in the summer of ’05. So they moved me off the ship so I could play more amateur golf.  So I was able to make the Walker Cup.”

“I then turned professional in March of 2006 while I was still active duty and played seven — or eight tournaments over the next — over that year, PGA Tour events through sponsor exemptions and Monday qualifying.”

“At that time I was also trying to — I submitted paperwork to be released from the Navy and transfer to the Reserves, kind of like David Robinson [of the San Antonio Spurs] is kind of a classic example of that policy.  I was not accepted to that, so after I spent basically two years at the Naval Academy while that paperwork was kind of going on, I was teaching economics.  I spent two semesters of Intro to Econ.”

“And then in June, July of 2007 I went to a destroyer, USS CHUNG‑HOON, and I served there for two years.  I deployed twice with that ship, both times — we were home ported in Hawaii, Pearl Harbor Hawaii.  Nice place to live for two years.  But I was only actually there for 11 months out of the kind of 24 months I was stationed there, with deployments and all that.”

“So I was in the Persian Gulf for a couple of months, right off the coast of China, south China Sea for a little bit.  Did some stuff in the Red Sea; drove the ship through the Suez Canal, probably the highlight of my days on the ship.  I was actually the officer of the deck driving the ship through the Suez Canal, which was awesome.”

“And then in July, 2009 I finished my five‑year commitment, and I got out of the Navy, played about a year and a half of mini tours, got Nationwide status, played a year on Nationwide.  Finished 25th my first year out there, got to the PGA TOUR my rookie year in 2012.  Didn’t keep it.  Played last year and got back here for this year.”

His selfless devotion to duty and country was pretty much all consuming. When the ship’s at sea, you don’t get to hit balls off the fantail. The ship never sleeps at sea or in port:

“Not working on the game that much, no.  You know, I tried to just kind of work out as much as I could, which wasn’t even as much as you want to kind of thing.  It’s completely a 60, 70‑hour week kind of job.”

“So you know, for those two years in Hawaii I was a recreational golfer.  I probably averaged one round a month over those two years”

Through all of that, he still held on to the notion that he was capable of playing on the PGA Tour:

“Yeah.  I mean basically my senior year in college I kind of played really well and was ranked No. 2 in the country for a while, and you know, then kind of thought, hey, I might be able to do this.  Like the guys that I’m playing against and are ranked against right now are the guys that are turning pro and expected to go play the PGA Tour kind of thing.”

“So it’s certainly something that I always wanted to do from the time that I graduated.  I had the five‑year commitment, and I never wavered in the commitment, fulfilling my — that I signed up to do in the Navy, but, you know, the PGA Tour was the goal for me pretty much, you know, the entire time I was in the Navy.”

“That said, golf was completely a, you know, 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.”

Thank you for your service, Lieutenant. This country is blessed to have men like you willing to serve. Now, please, enjoy the fulfillment of your next dream. With three top 10s this year that helped him get to $879,000, Hurley is a lock to keep his card for next year.

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