June 26, 2016
As sports fans, we look for storylines to accompany our results. They make the box score easier to digest; they make the final minutes of crunch time that much more compelling.
By cruising to victory at the Quicken Loans National, though, Billy Hurley didn’t just offer up a single storyline. He provided enough to fill a naval fleet.
Hurley’s win was another coup for the prototypical journeyman, following in the footsteps of Vaughn Taylor and Jim Herman earlier this season. At age 34, Hurley finally has a PGA Tour trophy on his shelf, and the two-year exemption that goes with it.
But Hurley’s story goes deeper than a player breaking through at the right time. Much deeper.
Not only did Hurley win, but he did so in Bethesda, Md. – a short drive from Annapolis, where he attended the U.S. Naval Academy. Hurley becomes the first graduate of a U.S. military academy to win on Tour, and he does so at an event that specifically honors military veterans, a nod by tournament host Tiger Woods to his late father, Earl.
In fact, Hurley was on active duty in the Navy when the first edition of the then-AT&T National was played at Congressional back in 2007.
But Bethesda is also about 35 miles from Leesburg, Va., which Hurley once called home. It was there that he learned the game from his father, Willard Hurley Jr., and it is that bond that gives this win even more meaning.
One year ago, Hurley used this tournament’s platform and reach to make an impassioned, emotional plea. His father had gone missing. Hurley stood in front of a room full of cameras at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, living out one of the darkest points of his life in a very public setting.
Willard Hurley Jr. was found a day later, on July 31, but on Aug. 13 he was discovered dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 61.
Hurley carried his grief with him in the weeks that followed. He tried to tee it up days after his father’s death at the Wyndham Championship, a last-ditch effort to save his Tour card, but he missed the cut.
The next month, he had a chance to regain full status at the Web.com Tour Championship in Florida. But Hurley hit a wedge approach into the water on the 16th hole of the final round, ultimately missing his card by $394 over the four-week Web.com Tour Finals.
That near-miss left him to cobble together a schedule spliced between the two circuits this season, contingent upon sponsor exemptions like the one he received this week.
It also makes Hurley’s understated words in the minutes after his win, spoken through a faltering voice as he tried to hold back tears, all the more poignant.
“It’s been a hard year. It’s been a really hard year,” Hurley said. “So it’s nice to have something go well.”
At No. 607 in the world, Hurley wasn’t supposed to even contend this week. He hadn’t cracked the top 40 in 13 worldwide starts this year, and he was ranked ahead of only Arjun Atwal among the 120 men that began the tournament.
But sometimes, it takes only one good week.
We saw it with Taylor at Pebble Beach, and with Herman in Houston. This time it was Hurley’s turn, the next player to step up in a situation where conventional wisdom suggested he would falter.
With his victory, Hurley now has berths in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Open Championship and PGA Championship. He’ll play the FedEx Cup Playoffs that he missed out on a year ago, and he’ll take a trip to Hawaii in January for the winners-only event at Kapalua.
His playing schedule, which just days ago resembled a patchwork quilt, is now set through the 2017-18 season. And oh yeah, he’ll take a trip down Magnolia Lane in April for his first Masters appearance.
One year ago, Hurley stood before his PGA Tour brethren a broken man. He was looking for answers amid a situation where solace and comfort were hard to come by.
But this week, despite all of the pain and turmoil of the previous 12 months, Hurley walked off the final green a champion. He had reached the pinnacle of his career, and he had done so at the tournament which, for him, perhaps means the most.
It’s a compelling turnaround, and one that brought with it a flood of congratulatory messages from fellow Tour pros across social media. Even in a sea of storylines, Hurley’s win stands out above the rest.