Billy Hurley III learning to cope with painful memories

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in January, 2016 before Billy Hurley III won his first PGA Tour event June 26, 2016 at the Quicken Loans National.

There's cruel irony in that the hardest part comes on the golf course. That's where Billy Hurley III most often thinks about his father, because that's where they spent the most time together.

Before he became a police sergeant, Willard Hurley Jr. played four years of college golf and worked as an assistant pro at a course. Billy doesn't remember it, but he knows he was tooling around in a cart with his dad from the time he could walk. The "fifth wheel in a foursome of men," as he says, he'd chip balls to sprinkler heads while the men putted on each green.

He does remember getting serious about the game in high school. He and his dad would spend long nights under a floodlight on the back deck of their Leesburg, Virginia, home, working on his swing.

"That doesn't feel right," the younger Hurley would complain of his grip or his posture.

"It doesn't matter what it feels like," his father would remind him. "It matters what it is."

These are the thoughts that now come flooding back to Billy on the golf course, even during competition. They might start with a recollection of a swing tip or a fun memory of one of their golf vacations. The thoughts might end there, too -- or they might extend to all of the unanswered questions.

Unanswered questions about how a proud father could just vanish from his family one day.

About how he never returned to them, even once he was found.

About how he wound up in his car near the Potomac River, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

It ranks as one of golf's more improbable success stories. Billy Hurley III attended the Naval Academy, earning a degree in quantitative economics, then spent five years in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of lieutenant before fulfilling his commitment in 2009. Twice deployed on the USS Chung-Hoon, he navigated a ship in the Persian Gulf, through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, never giving up the dream of playing golf at the highest level.

Hurley, 33, turned professional in 2006 and competed in seven PGA Tour events while still on active duty. Once out of the military, he pursued his dream, toiling on the mini-tour circuit for a year and a half. After graduating to the developmental Nationwide Tour, Hurley earned the 25th and final spot onto the PGA Tour for the 2012 season.

He's carved out a nice career for himself ever since, compiling seven top-10 finishes and totaling more than $2 million in earnings.

On July 27 of last year, Hurley was making his usual Monday preparations in advance of the Quicken Loans National tournament. His 26th start of the 2014-15 season would be a little more special than most, as Robert Trent Jones Golf Club was just a short drive from Leesburg.

When he received a text message that afternoon from his mother, Cheryl, he just assumed she was making plans to watch him compete that week. Instead, she asked him to wait for a call from Wallace Mitchell, the family's longtime pastor.

Mitchell explained that Hurley's 61-year-old father had left home a week earlier without notice and was still missing. He'd left behind his cellphone and computer but took his gun, a police-issued firearm that he purchased from the Prince William County, Virginia, department upon his retirement.

Hurley hurried over to his childhood home and met with his family to discuss their next course of action.

"We all got there that evening," he recalled. "We were just like, what are we going to do? Then it occurred to me."

As a local player in the tournament -- and especially one with such a rich backstory -- Hurley had a news conference scheduled by the PGA Tour for the next afternoon. With his family's blessing, he sat in front of the assembled media and didn't speak much about golf or his Navy years, but instead issued a plea for help in finding his missing father.

"The hope was that in some way, it would reach him," explained Billy's younger brother, Dan. "There was very little in our dad's life that seemed to bring him joy more than watching Billy play golf. We were hoping that no matter where he was, he was still doing that."

Knowing his dad would constantly check his son's score when he was playing, Hurley was simply hoping he'd see a story on the PGA Tour's website and contact the family.

"It's funny how you notice things. You're trying to play a tournament, but you notice the circus around you. They don't just follow guys who are trying to make the cut." Billy Hurley III

Instead, the story resonated through mainstream media outlets. By the next day, national-network morning shows were asking Hurley to join them live. Word spread quicker than he could have imagined.

"It became a way bigger story than I ever thought or intended," he said.

Soon there were plenty of details of his father's life that reached the surface. Willard led the police crew that helped bring the John Wayne Bobbitt investigation to a conclusion, the public learned. He was now retired, active in his church and an unabashed fan of his son, the pro golfer.

Before the opening round, Hurley gave the PGA Tour security team some instructions. If there was news about his father while he was playing, he didn't want to know about it. He requested they tell him after the round.

On Thursday, he posted an unremarkable score of 1-under 70. Afterward, there was still no news about his father.

The next day, while grinding to make the cut, Hurley saw two cameras focused on him at the 10th green.

"It's funny how you notice things. You're trying to play a tournament, but you notice the circus around you," he said. "They don't just follow guys who are trying to make the cut."

He instinct was right. After two-putting for par on the final hole to make the cut on the number, Hurley was told that his father was found at a public library in Clarksville, Texas -- a direct result of the media coverage given to his story.

After signing his scorecard, Hurley was asked by a television reporter whether he had a message for his dad.

Misty-eyed, he offered another public plea: "I love you. We love you. Please come home."

Willard Hurley Jr. never came home.

The local law enforcement in Clarksville began to search for clues. Cheryl Hurley knew her husband had only enough gout medication to get him through the first few days of August. She called their local CVS pharmacy on Aug. 10 to find out whether he'd renewed the prescription. An employee confirmed that he indeed had -- at a store location in Minnesota.

This information wasn't a complete non sequitur for the Hurley family.

Before he disappeared, Willard had an annual golf and fishing vacation scheduled with his father-in-law in Park Rapids, Minnesota. They had originally planned to return the next day, Aug. 11, so the family held out hope that Williard would come home, his journey changed, but his final destination the same.

The next day, Billy had a missed call from a sheriff in Virginia. In the voicemail message, the sheriff said he was at his parents' house and needed to speak with him. He immediately knew it wasn't good news.

"Growing up as the son of a cop," he explained, "you knew that if the cops called you, it was OK. If they showed up at your door, it was really bad."

Before he could return the call or drive to his mom's house, Billy received a call from his brother.

"Dad's dead," Dan told him.

Willard Hurley Jr. had been in his car, next to a public boat ramp by the bridge on Route 15 that crosses the Potomac River. A local woman had heard the gunshot from her home.

Billy doesn't remember much after hearing his brother's words. Not that day. Not for a few days afterward.

He vaguely recalls walking into his parents' house and seeing his father's favorite chair. He recalls thinking he had brief, 15-second windows to speak with his mother about specific arrangements, because that's all she could handle. He recalls speaking with her about identifying his father's body, then catching her as she fainted.

"That's when I was like, wow, this is real," he said. "The enormity of it hit me at that point."

There were so many questions in the immediate aftermath. Why did he leave home? What was he doing in Texas? In Minnesota? Why didn't he contact his family? Why did he return close to their home?

And the biggest question: Why did he pull the trigger?

"There are unanswered questions, questions that on this side of heaven, we're not going to get the answer to," Billy said. "I'm not sure they really matter in heaven."

Billy insists that any suggestions would be pure speculation. He maintains his father had never before left home unannounced. He said he never had any history of mental health issues -- at least, none that any of them knew about.

He said he wonders whether life in the high-stress career of law enforcement played a role in what happened.

"I think now more than ever, we have a better understanding medically of how traumatic events affect your brain," he said. "Sometimes we don't understand the impact that stuff like that has on us."

The family hopes Willard Hurley Jr. is remembered more for his life than his death. "I still think I had the best dad that the world's ever known," Dan said. "My hope is that that's the way he gets remembered, no matter how it ended."

Billy insists he's doing pretty well, all things considered. Sure, he's still going through therapy and still has some dark days, but who wouldn't in his situation?

After failing to retain his full PGA Tour playing privileges last season, Billy competed in the four-event Web.com Tour Finals at the end of last season.

He hasn't done the exact math, but believes if he'd finished just 1 stroke better at any of the four tournaments, he'd be a full-time PGA Tour member again this season.

Just a single stroke during any of those four weeks, four weeks spent walking fairways while his father was never far from his thoughts.

Sometimes those thoughts would be happy ones, remembering those nights on the back deck under the floodlight, working on his grip and posture. Other times his mind would wander, asking himself all of those questions about his father that will forever remain unanswered.