Former Navy Lt. Billy Hurley III played on the same victorious 2005 Walker Cup team as PGA Tour professionalAnthony Kim.
Kim, 26, is approaching $1 million in PGA Tour prize money this season. Hurley, 29, who competes on the Nationwide Tour, a developmental circuit, has won less than 10 percent of that during his entire pro career.
A big reason for the difference is that Hurley spent the first five years of his career fulfilling his commitment to the Navy.
Now he's making up for lost time.
Last week, Hurley finished a career-best second at the Chiquita Classic in Maineville, Ohio, and he was fifth in his previous event, the Preferred Health Systems Wichita (Kan.) Open. The Nationwide Tour has Hurley second in its power rankings for the Children's Hospital Invitational in Columbus, Ohio, which begins today.
It's definitely a "step in the right direction," Hurley said of his success last weekend.
Shaking the rust off took longer than Hurley thought it would, however.
During his five-year obligation, he worked on a cruiser in Mayport, Fla., as an economics instructor at the Naval Academy and on a destroyer in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
"I got to play in some tournaments while teaching … use leave days to play," he said. "June 2007 through June 2009 [in Pearl Harbor], I barely played. My skills certainly diminished, and they took a little while to come back. It was more difficult than I thought. Summer and fall of 2009 were challenging times for me."
Not that he regrets his college choice.
"The Naval Academy grabbed me," he said. "The tradition, ideals, integrity and everything it stood for … it was the only place I applied."
It was during his senior season at Navy in 2004 that Hurley felt he could play golf professionally. He was named Patriot League Player of the Year and won the Byron Nelson Award, which goes to a graduating senior based on his college career, as well as character and integrity.
But at that point, Hurley had to put his professional golf dream on hold.
"I signed up to serve five years, so there was no short end of the stick," Hurley said. "[Golf] took a back seat."
But indirectly, the time away from the sport might have improved his game.
"Those five years in the Navy added a great deal to his maturity," Navy coach Pat Owen said. "It could have been as valuable to him as playing experience was to his peers."
Said Hurley: "The discipline, mental toughness that they teach you. Working hard, time management, especially, is also helpful in life."
Clay Duerson could tell, after only a few months of caddying for Hurley, that some of the skills he learned came from his time at the academy.
"He's disciplined and organized, important while playing golf," Duerson said. "[Hurley] keeps his emotions in line, keeps a level head. … That's really valuable and will help him in the future."
As for the present, Hurley knows where his focus needs to be.
"I just need to keep improving," he said. "It's about developing the finer points of the game and recognizing small differences … saving one shot here, get a half-shot back there."
Duerson, in his third year as a caddie on the tour, has noticed a difference in Hurley's game compared with earlier in the season.
"[I've noticed] quite a bit of change," Duerson said. "He's a more confident player, specifically in his short game. … He's really talented, and it's evident through his play."
Hurley put some of that talent on display in the back nine of the final round of the Chiquita Classic, sinking six of his eight birdies on the day. Hurley shot only four bogeys during the 72-hole tournament, not one in the final round.
The runner-up finish rocketed Hurley from 80th to 22nd on Nationwide's money list. The top 25 at the end of the season earn full PGA Tour cards for the next season.
Hurley's recent success could be a sign of things to come, but he's not so sure.
"Golf's a crazy game. You never know," he said.
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