WINTER GARDEN, Fla. -- In his own circuitous fashion, Lt. Billy Hurley wants to join the plebe ranks all over again.
That's the centuries-old term used to describe the freshman class at the storied U.S. Naval Academy, where Hurley began his improbable paddling into the deepest talent pool in the professional game, a decade ago.
Freshman ... tour rookie. Pretty much the same thing, minus the hazing.
|Billy Hurley III has secured his place on either the PGA or Nationwide tours. (Getty Images)|
From Pearl Harbor to the Persian Gulf and possibly to the PGA Tour, Hurley is adrift among 165 others trying to secure a card at six rounds of corporal punishment called Qualifying School Finals.
In the Navy, a fathom is a measure of depth and distance. Perfect, since Hurley's career track is largely unfathomable for most guys to digest. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 2004 and then finally fulfilling his five-year hitch, Hurley has fired up the twin screws on his career. As a famous guy once said, damn the torpedoes and all that.
"Now he is making up for lost time," his caddie, Steve Hulka, said.
For his time served, we all owe the 28-year-old a collective salute, if not a rousing golf clap. While the other top-flight golfers of his college graduating class of 2004 were already chasing millions of dollars, not to mention their tour dreams, Hurley was floating around many of the seven seas, none of which are named Rae's Creek.
It's been a remarkable, and remarkably disjointed, path. When he enrolled at Navy as a gung-ho high school kid, Hurley figured he'd be a lifer in the service of his country. After he started winning NCAA tournaments as a senior and climbing up the amateur ranks, his internal compass changed. Everything changed -- except his Naval commitment.
"Somewhere in my senior year, this became a reality," Hurley said, waving a hand as he walked the Q-school course before Wednesday's opening round. "Something that could actually happen. This is what I have been working for, even when we were at sea. To be ready to do this."
As you might imagine, destroyers are made for launching rockets, not Titleists. Hurley did the best he could to stay in shape while at sea.
"There was a missile deck where, I think, 20 times around equaled one mile," he laughed.
He's been lapped in experience by his peers as a result. By putting his golf on hold for most of the past four years, Hurley's final trajectory remains uncertain, though he's ecstatic that by making the Q-school finals, he has secured a place on either the PGA or Nationwide tours next year. However, Hulka, a veteran caddie on loan from tour regular Brian Davis, gushes about Hurley's assets as a player and isn't expecting any stage fright.
"He reminds me of a young Luke Donald," said Hulka, who began his caddying career in the early 1970s.
Hulka flat flushed it. Hurley has a notable physical resemblance to Donald in both height and weight, not to mention his blond hair and the general stability of his game. Perhaps befitting his academic pedigree as a Naval grad, Hurley is a tactical fairways-and-greens guy, not a wild-swinging, mad-bomber type.
"He doesn't have any weaknesses, and if he does, he's sure not afraid to work on it," Hulka said. "His putting stroke is unreal. I guess about the only thing right now holding him back, if that is the right term, is that he hasn't been here before.
"You know, experience."
Hurley became a national story a few years back, after the navy gave him the time to pursue playing on the Palmer and Walker Cup teams after his senior year. Sensing the possible publicity that Hurley could generate as a golfing ambassador, the Navy in 2006 yellow-lighted a plan in which Hurley could earn the same deferment as former Navy basketball star David Robinson, who was allowed to pursue an NBA career even though he had time remaining on his military hitch.
The catch was, the Navy wasn't interested in mini-tours or the Nationwide circuit. Hurley failed to make it through Q-school and was unable to make enough money in very limited tour events in 2006 to secure his card via sponsor-exemption route. Back to the shipyard he went.
"The Navy basically wanted him to be a full-time PGA Tour player for them to even consider it," said Alex Chehansky, an academy grad and a longtime friend.
Talk about shape up or ship out. Hurley eventually did plenty of the latter, mostly aboard a destroyer called the USS Chung-Hoon. His travels included a summer stint riding shotgun over crucial oil rigs located in the Persian Gulf. Here's a couple of sentences that no other tour wannabe has ever uttered:
"Iraq has two oil platforms that make up 90 percent of their GDP," Hurley said. "Iran would love nothing more than to make those disappear."
If that sounds like militaristic hooey, well, Hurley actually taught economics at Annapolis from 2005-07 before hitting the high seas, so he's not just spouting the company line. Though, he was relieved most of his students in his class were taking economics as a core requirement, not as their major. "So I didn't feel as bad if they didn't learn something," Hurley cracked.
Now Hurley is forcibly catching up on his own learning curve. Hurley has made a total of eight starts in PGA Tour-sanctioned events, including an appearance at the Turning Stone event this year, where he Monday qualified. Some of his mates from the 2005 Walker Cup team have been plying their trade for years -- perhaps you've heard of Anthony Kim, Jeff Overton and J.B. Holmes, who have all played in the Ryder Cup already.
After finishing off his five-year Naval commitment in June, 2009, Hurley failed to get through Q-school last year and spent this season splitting time between the eGolf and Hooters tours, amassing one victory and about $100,000 in combined earnings, a solid year given purse levels in the minors.
You can bet it was well spent. Hurley got married in 2005, fathered William Hurley IV three years ago and in 2009 adopted another son, Jacob, from an orphanage in Ethiopia. The latter, in itself, is a fairly incredible tale.
There has been one constant -- Hurley, who still lives near the academy, is never home.
"I like to tell everybody that I have a very expensive storage unit in Annapolis," he said.
One of Hurley's many duties on his destroyer was overseeing a crew of 20 that was responsible for painting the ship, a never-ending process akin to keeping a fresh coat of orange on the Golden Gate Bridge.
"Oddly, saltwater and steel don't like each other and the C.O. doesn't like to see rust," he laughed.
Oxidation might be the biggest question as it relates to Hurley this week. Given the layoff, can he possibly be steeled for the live fire he will face at this level?
"I really feel like I am ready," he said. "Last year, there's no way I was ready. It was probably a blessing that I didn't make it through Q-school. I needed more time."
In some ways, it seems like he's never been away. Even though many players in his proximal age group haven't seen him in years, Hurley has exchanged dozens of pleasantries and handshakes with former college foes and pals this week. Most of them have been busy plying their trade while he was out at sea, watching their collective back.
In one 2009 stretch onboard the Chung-Hoon, he played exactly once in a five-month span. So golf was clearly the elusive carrot on a stick before he finally received his emancipation proclamation 17 months ago.
"I don't know if I have ever heard it put that way before," he laughed. "You mean, when did I fulfill my commitment obligation for the free education I received?"
School of another sort begins this week.
Another of Hurley's shipboard duties was to supervise the mooring when the ship was docked or anchored. Looking for a soft landing and a career insurance policy, Hurley spoke to his commanding officer before he left the Navy about re-upping if his professional golf career foundered and received a heartening response.
Last year, a few months before he was discharged, another of Hurley's superior officers hauled him into the office when he heard that Hurley had inquired about keeping the Navy door open. It went over like a screen door on a submarine.
The officer ordered him to mentally cut that mooring line.
"I don't ever want to hear you ever say that again," the officer told Hurley. "Not that you don't belong in the Navy, but you can't be thinking like that if you are going to play against those guys, at that level, on that tour."
He did all but yell anchors aweigh as he kicked Hurley out the door.
"I have to admit," Hurley said, "it was pretty cool to hear him say that."