An officer in a gentleman's game
Billy Hurley III has every intention to see Toby Keith's concert Wednesday night at the state fairgrounds.
It's tough to get more patriotic than seeing one of the biggest country stars play on the Fourth of July. But for Hurley, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who served overseas, the concert will carry a little more meaning.
"He actually debuted his 'Red, White and Blue' song at the Naval Academy after September 11th," Hurley recalled. "I think it was the third time he had actually sung that, and the first time in front of a big crowd. He had a concert there, and that was one of the first times he sang that song, which is pretty cool."
(The song's long title: "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).")
That was a strange time in America, but more so at a military academy. Suddenly, a group of men and women training for military leadership service witnessed a rare attack on American soil, and knew their life as going to take a different direction.
Which direction, nobody was sure.
"It was weird. We didn't exactly know what was going on; we were trying to put pieces of information together," Hurley said. "The hardest part is that you have a lot of military kids there, and a lot of their dads and moms work at the Pentagon.
One of my roomates' dad actually worked at the Pentagon for a while; we weren't sure if he was OK. I had another friend whose dad had meetings every Tuesday at the World Trade Center, and he didn't know if he was OK.
"Everybody had stories like that. It was a surreal day."
Hurley's life went in many directions since 2001, but he did a lot of the steering - at times, literally.
While at Annapolis, he completed his degree in quantitative economics and won the Byron Nelson Award, given for an outstanding college golf career combined with equally outstanding service off the course.
A native of Leesburg, Va., Hurley also captured Virginia State Amateur titles in 2004 and 2005, and played on the 2005 Walker Cup team.
As with all academy graduates, he had a five-year military obligation, and met it head-on. His duty included a few months in the Persian Gulf in 2007, serving on the USS Chung-Hoon, a 10,000-ton guided-missile destroyer.
He also worked on a cruiser in Jacksonville, Fla., and a destroyer in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He won ship-driving awards along the way.
Yes, he drove those ships - pretty much dead solid perfect. In fact, he says driving one of those little dimpled balls is a tougher challenge.
"I think hitting a golf ball is harder than driving a ship. I really mean that," Hurley said. "From a personal standpoint, I should say. They're very similar in that there are so many idiosyncrasies to them, and the amount of time and knowledge it takes to master them.
"For me, driving a ship came pretty naturally. You learn the whole time when you're driving a ship and when you get really good at it, you're still learning. It's sort of like a golf swing - when you're at the peak of your game and you want to be one of the top players in the world, they're still learning.
"Driving a ship's a lot like that. You're always learning something a little more about the ship, or about current conditions, and stuff like that."
Driving a ball wasn't easy when he left the service. While he got some practice in at Jacksonville and Pearl Harbor, he couldn't exactly break away for 18 in the Persian Gulf.
He had played six PGA Tour events in 2006 and one in 2007, making two cuts. But those memories had faded.
"I spent a few years as a recreational golfer," he said. "I was not playing competitively, I was probably averaging playing once a month. I had multiple-month stretches where I didn't play at all.
"It took awhile to get back into it, and feel like I have all the shots, and feel like I could control the ball. It took six to nine months after I first got out, got back into the game, and it was really hard.
"I was wondering if it would ever come back."
Eventually, it did. He received a new taste of the big tour, making the cut in the 2010 Turning Stone Championship and making about $8,500. After falling short in the "Q School" tournament, he headed to the Nationwide (now Web.com) Tour for 2011.
He missed four of the first five cuts, but finished fifth at Wichita, Kan., to break that drought. Four weeks later, he was runner-up at the Chiquita Classic in Maineville, Ohio.
From there, he made 10 of his final 12 cuts, finishing in the top 20 six times. With an 18th-place finish at the Nationwide Tour Championship, he finished with $180,191 in earnings, 25th on that tour - the last spot for the coveted promotion to the big tour.
As far as anybody knows, Hurley is the only military academy graduate to gain full PGA Tour privileges.
"It's been written enough times," he said. "No one's refuted it yet."
This weekend, he has a chance at a big payday at the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. He not only made his sixth cut in 18 tries, but he entered Saturday tied for fifth place at 2 under par.
A big finish could at least double his current season take of $85,072, and give him a needed boost from 189th in the FedExCup rankings.
Nobody had to tell Hurley it wouldn't be easy being a tour rookie. Sometimes it's as hard as ... well, driving a 10,000-ton ship.
"Yes, it is hard. My season had a very slow start," he said. "I'm trying to learn from everything and, hopefully, have a good finish to the season. It's not the immediate success that I was hoping for, but then I guess not a whole lot of people have that.
"I've started to play a lot better in the last couple of weeks, and hopefully I'll be able to take that and keep running into the summer."
After this weekend, Hurley will take his first trip to The Greenbrier resort, driving with wife Heather and sons Will (5 years old) and Jacob (3). They'll make that trip Monday night.
After Hurley checks out Old White TPC a time or two, it will be off to see Toby Keith.
In some ways, his Fourth of July could be very special. In other ways, it will simply be another good night to be an American.
"I think, talking about fighting for freedom, I get that, I suppose you can say," he said. "I also have friends who are doing it. I have some memories of the Fourth of July, from a Navy standpoint, Naval Academy standpoint.
"The thing that is different, certainly when you're in the Navy and you're around all that, every day is the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, whatever you want to call it.
"It's just a part of your life. You really don't need a holiday, or a set of guidelines to make you think about it."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.