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Billy Hurley III on his path to, life on, the PGA Tour

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If you hadn’t heard of him before July of last year, Billy Hurley III likely appeared on your radar screen when he grabbed the lead at the Greenbrier Classic. In the course of that solid performance (he ultimately tied for fourth), golf fans learned a bit about the Navy grad that steered 10,000-ton warships during a five-year tour of duty after college before trying his luck as a professional golfer.

The 2012 PGA Tour rookie had his best season on Tour last year, making 17 of 26 cuts and notching four top-10 finishes in addition to earning more than $1.1 million. I caught up with him just after he arrived in Los Angeles for the Northern Trust Open.

B.A.: Did you know you needed to make birdie to play on Sunday at Pebble?

B.H. Only 60 and ties play on Sunday. I figured if I made two pars I’d make the cut and get paid (MDF — made cut, did not finish). I pretty much knew where I was. I needed to make a birdie. I hit a good shot at 16…didn’t make the putt. Then I hit a good shot at 17 and was able to make the putt.

This has to be a unique situation, and I wonder if you’ve gotten used to it: You were on the officer pay scale for several years and now you’re in a position where you can make that in one week.

I wouldn’t say that my wife and my lifestyle has gone up that much since we were in the Navy. Having played mini-tours for a bit, that was kind of a step back from the lifestyle we had when I was a lieutenant in the Navy. And then Nationwide and working our way up…had a rookie year that wasn’t great. So last year was kind of the first year that we made a lot of money. So yeah, you’re right, I’ve had four or five weeks that have doubled what I made in a year in the Navy kind of thing. But it’s not really about money on Tour. You make $500,000 this year and you could go play the Web.com Tour next year.

But it is a much bigger lifestyle than most people can afford to have, and that’s one of the things my wife is constantly talking about. You know, for as long as I play on the PGA Tour, we’re going to have more money than I need to live on. And what do we do with that? How do we steward the resources we’ve been given? What do we do with excess? And how much is enough? What are we going to live on? How much are we going to give away? Who are we going to give it away to, and how are we going to give it away? That kind of stuff is a constant conversation.

It looks like you play a hodgepodge of equipment. Do you consider yourself a tinkerer? What’s your approach to golf equipment?

I am completely playing a hodgepodge of equipment. I’m basically just playing what I want to play. I don’t really change that often. I’m playing with whatever I feel like gives me the best chance to play good golf. If I got paid an extra $100,000 from some equipment manufacturer to play their club or their ball and I don’t play good golf, then it’s not worth the money. If a take an extra $100,000 in endorsement money and don’t keep my card, then I’ve lost $500,000.

I’m always interested in pre-tournament preparation. Do you feel like that’s something that’s pretty standard from guy to guy or is everyone usually doing their own thing?

I think there are some things that are standard and some things are guy-to-guy. For me, the practice round, you’re trying to get a feel for how the course is playing. How firm are the greens going to be…Speed of the greens, obviously…couple of different shots…pin positions that you know are difficult…certain putts…you want to have one in the bag for experience from this position to that pin or from this chip to that pin. Or this par-5 you can miss it over here…this bunker is fine, this bunker is bad…you’ve got to get a feel for where to hit it and how to plot your way around the golf course.

And the nice thing is now this is my third year on Tour, so it’s not learning new golf courses every time. It’s more fine-tuning with the golf course, getting a better idea what it is. Certain pins you remember…you know you just have to hit it over here, there’s no other option….that kind of stuff.

Certainly there are a number of those [things] here at Riviera. I still haven’t figured out how to play the 10th hole. It’s kind of “hit it somewhere and go figure it out.”

There are certain weeks where you feel good and just kind of do your normal drills. There are certain weeks where you’re not hitting it very good and you end up hitting a lot more balls on the range. Certain weeks I’m tinkering with equipment—I do tinker a lot, but I don’t really change that much. Some weeks you’re going to spend more time ballstriking. Some weeks you’re going to spend more time putting.

Wedges are a focus that I want to have this year: Making sure that I…have a solid practice…different trajectories, different shots…from like 30 to 130 yards.

Practice facilities drive a bit of your practice too. You go: “OK the range isn’t great this week…the putting green is really, really small…next week the range is huge, they’ve got a big putting green.”

Even if you’re there Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, there isn’t enough time to do everything you need to do, so you kind of space the pieces out over a number of weeks.

What’s similar between playing on the Web.com Tour and the PGA Tour? I know there are major differences, especially with the outside the ropes stuff. Is that true?

I think that they are similar in some respects and vastly different in others. You can pretty much say that…everything from the Web.com Tour, multiply it by 10 and you get the PGA Tour: purse size, crowd size, equipment reps, all those different people that around Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday…

The thing they have in common is they’re both really good golf. And the Web.com Tour doesn’t get enough credit for how good the players are. You think about Major League Baseball — Spring Training has started up and there’ll be over 600 guys that make a major league roster. Over 1,600 guys just got finished playing football. There’s 430 guys playing basketball right now. And there’s 144 guys playing at Riviera Country Club this week. The numbers just don’t add up.

Unfortunately, we’ve convinced the average golf fan that the Web.com Tour isn’t very good, but the reality is, if this were Major League Baseball, they’d all be on a roster, and they’d be starting if this were football.

Golf courses are a lot more difficult on the PGA Tour. The greens are a lot firmer week in and week out. You play a lot of country club courses on the Web.com Tour where 25-under wins the golf tournament. Unfortunatey, there’s not enough golf courses where 12- or 15-under wins on the Web.com Tour.

When golf courses are firmer and faster, you get away with less. On the Web.com Tour, they normally are a little bit softer…you can get away with a little bit more.

I know that you always planned on doing your service and then becoming a professional golfer. The point for me that’s interesting is: You’re done with your service. You haven’t played that much. I have to imagine that there was a little second-guessing of that plan, and you were thinking of re-enlisting or doing something else. What was that like?

I never really second-guessed the initial decision. That was kind of the plan: I was going to serve my five years, and then I was going to go try and get back into golf and see if I could make it. The plan was to give it a shot. As I was getting out of the Navy…I did everything I needed to do in the Navy…so that if, two, three years down the road golf wasn’t going to work, I would have at least had the option to get back in.

I was asking my executive officer about that:

“If I wanted to get back in the Navy, would I be able to? How would that work?”

And I guess [he]…told the captain of the ship, and he said, “I hear you were talking to the [executive officer] about getting back in the Navy?” I said, “I want to make sure I have a backup plan.” He said, “I don’t want to ever hear you talk like that again. Listen, I’d love to have you in the Navy. But with what you’re going to do, you can’t be thinking like that at all. There is no Plan B.”

There was certainly a period of time within that first year of getting out of the Navy and getting back into golf where it was like “I don’t know if this is going to work…it’s not as easy as it used to be.”

Missing cuts on the mini-tours; missing them by a shot; feeling frustrated and not making any money…My wife and I had two serious conversations about quitting golf (retiring, as we call it). And each time, I won the tournament the next week. That was kind of a little bit of confirmation that maybe we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Tom

    Mar 3, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    Best wishes Billy – many of us old USNA grads are following you every week and pulling hard for your success.

  2. Steve A

    Feb 25, 2015 at 7:45 am

    Nice story…thanks. All the best Billy! I’ll be following you.

  3. Shooter

    Feb 19, 2015 at 11:42 pm

    Billy and I were teammates at the Academy for all four years (2000-2004). Great dude, really smart, wicked short game. Great interview on the site. That’s about as honest as he gets. I’m only an hour away from Riveria but can’t make it to see him this week due to scheduling issues.

  4. Golfraven

    Feb 19, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    wow, that is the real deal. All those college boys who go straight on tour should consider themselves lucky. 5 years is a long time but guess he is making that up with his talent. Respect. Enjoy the $.

  5. Jake S

    Feb 19, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Tinkering with clubs a lot? Sounds like he should hit the PXG clubs or maybe the new Hogans.

  6. Jeff B

    Feb 19, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    wow what his officer told him, teared me up a little. Still great people in the world. Would love to see this guy do well.

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