Hurley Starts New Career as a Professional Golfer

Mark Wilson might be the defending champion and such top players as Webb Simpson, PGA champion Keegan Bradley and Jhonattan Vegas may be in the field, but the feel-good story this week in the Sony Open is Billy Hurley III.

The 29-year-old rookie gained entry onto the 2012 PGA Tour by finishing 25th in earnings on last year's Nationwide Tour, thus qualifying for a cherished membership on the regular tour. But what makes Hurley's story so remarkable is that his golfing career was waylaid by a lengthy stint in the U.S. Navy.

That time away from the golf course came because Hurley attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., which automatically carries with it a five-year commitment for active military service upon graduation. Hurley's stretch began in 2004. Early on Hurley was able to keep his golf game sharp, good enough to warrant a place on the 2005 victorious U.S. Walker Cup team that included current PGA Tour members J.B. Holmes and Anthony Kim.

But Hurley was forced to put his clubs away - although he took them along and occasionally hit balls while assigned to the U.S.S. Chung-Hoon, a 10,000-ton guided-missile destroyer. When his Navy stint expired in 2009, Hurley eventually rediscovered his game.

But progress was slow. He tried the mini-tours and fell just short of making it through the PGA Tour's Q-School. After steady work with golf instructor Mitchell Spearman, Hurley's game gradually improved and he qualified for the 2011 Nationwide Tour. Thanks to earnings of $181,191, Hurley became the first-ever Naval Academy grad to gain a PGA Tour card.

"I'm proud to be the first service academy grad to play on the Tour full-time," he told's Mike McCallister.

Hurley isn't burdening himself with huge expectations in his first go-round against the best players in the world. "If I can sit back here a year from now or at the end of the year and say I'm a better golfer than when I started at the Sony Open," he told McCallister, "then I'll have had a good year in the midst of it.

"Sure, you'd love to win a golf tournament and put yourself in contention as much as possible, but really, if I just sit here and try to become better, go through the process of getting better, then I'll end up contending somewhere down the road."

Hurley, who's married with two young sons, has always surprised people with his golf skills, especially for someone with a relatively slight 5'10", 170-pound frame.

When Pat Owen, Navy's golf coach since 1991, first saw Hurley coming out for the team, he was not overly impressed. "He wasn't one of those guys who jumped out at you right off," Owen told reporter Josh Sens in Golf Magazine's February 2012 issue. "He was skinny as can be, and probably hit his 7-iron 150 yards."

But Hurley, despite the Academy's arduous academic and training schedule, got better. As a senior, he shot a 61, won six of the 13 tournaments he entered, and advanced to the match-play portion of the 2003 U.S. Amateur. "Whatever it was that clicked between his junior and senior year, he just came out firing," former teammate Brian Crum told Sens. "From then on there was no looking back."

Because of Hurley's fine senior season, Navy higher-ups provided enough time in his busy schedule to compete in the Walker Cup. Hurley later petitioned the Navy for a reduction in his active-duty requirement, but was turned down.

"I wasn't trying to get out of my obligations," he told Sens of his petition. "I just thought I could serve in a public relations role as a kind of public face of the Navy. But I understood the decision. We were engaged in two wars. Politically, it wasn't a great time for a guy to be out there playing golf."

So Hurley fulfilled his commitment, with his final two years being deployed on the Chung-Hoon stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. With Hurley as an on-board officer, the ship made brief stops in the Philippines and Japan, and cruised between Yemen and Eritrea, a prime smuggling route for weapons, drugs and people. It also patrolled the Iraqi coast.

Needless to say, there wasn't much time to practice golf. But Hurley rebuilt his game after his discharge and is enjoying a homecoming of sorts this week in the Sony Open in Honolulu. (The PGA Tour followed Hurley on his return visit to the Chung-Hoon; for the video of his visit, go to

Because of his military experience and the delay from his amateur days to his current time as a bona fide touring pro, Hurley has developed a keen appreciation of where he's been and where he's at. "When I was No. 25 on the Nationwide Tour, people kept coming up to me and saying, 'Wow, you must feel so much pressure on your position,' " he told Sens.

"But that's not how I saw it. First of all, there were only 24 guys out there who wouldn't have traded places with me. Second of all, I've just had more life experiences than a lot of them. I've seen a lot of the world and how people live. And I know that what we do out on the golf course is just not all that important in the grand scheme of things."

Hurley's first round at the Sony Open will commence Thursday at 8:40 a.m. on Waialae Country Club's 10th tee, where he'll be joined by playing partners Gary Christian and Danny Lee. He'll be proudly wearing a U.S. Navy emblem, which should be popular in Honolulu, an area with thousands of active and retired military personnel.

"I want to be the guy from the Navy, from the Naval Academy," he told's McCallister. "Nobody's really done it before. I'm proud to be the first service academy grad to play on the Tour full-time. I want to have that emblem on me."

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