Billy Hurley III picked the right place to produce one of his best rounds of the year — a Navy man at a tournament that celebrates the military, on a Congressional golf course not far from where he learned to play golf and then attended the Naval Academy.
"I think they started Plebe summer today," Hurley said with a grin.
Hurley played bogey-free Thursday on a U.S. Open-type golf course until the final hole, when his tee shot hit a tree, then he laid up into a divot and his par putt struck a spike mark. He still managed a 2-under 69, one shot behind Vijay Singh among the early starters at the AT&T National, and one of only two players who managed to break 70.
"This is a heck of a golf course," Hurley said. "You have to hit a lot of quality shots, and I was able to do that. Even at this place, you hit quality shots that end up with not a good look at birdie sometimes."
Singh made seven birdies that offset his share of mistakes.
Only 10 of the 60 players who teed off in the morning — before a heat wave began to bake Congressional — managed to break par. The group included Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, Dustin Johnson, Hunter Mahan, Stewart Cink and Marc Leishman, coming off his first PGA Tour win last week.
Tiger Woods, who won the AT&T National the last time it was at Congressional in 2009, was even par through nine holes in the afternoon.
Hurley had missed six straight cuts until he started to find his game last week at the Travelers Championship, and he is hopeful a good start was the sign of more good golf the rest of the week.
He is not the first PGA Tour rookie to struggle. Then again, there aren't many rookies like Hurley, a 30-year-old with two kids, backed by five years in the Navy, where his tasks included setting up security measures on ships.
For starters, there was the 17th hole. An American flag is attached to the pin, with a serviceman tending to it so that the flag doesn't touch the ground. Hurley struck up a conversation with him and learned that the serviceman works with Hurley's roommate from his last assignment at Pearl Harbor.
Not too many PGA Tour players majored in quantitative economics, or put their careers on hold for five years to serve in the Navy. Hurley played in the same group as Beau Hossler, a 17-year-old senior in high school who already has played in two U.S. Opens and is going into his senior year in high school.
Hossler opened with a 70, extending a dream summer. At the U.S. Open, he briefly had the lead to himself on Saturday.
"I'm starting to feel pretty comfortable out here, so I feel like I belong," Hossler said.
Hurley has felt strong Navy connections in other spots this year, such as the Sony Open in Honolulu and at Torrey Pines just north of San Diego.
But this is home.
He grew up in Leesburg, Va., son of a former club pro and police officer. A visit to the Naval Academy as a freshman in high school got him hooked, and he began wearing a Navy cap his last two years of high school.
"I remember standing on the putting green during Plebe summer, 12 years ago, and telling one of my classmates that I was going to play on the PGA Tour," Hurley said. "He laughed and was like, 'Good luck with that.' It was something I knew I wanted to try. I didn't know if I'd be good enough to try. And then all of a sudden, my senior year I took a couple of steps forward and became good enough to try."
He was good enough to get his PGA Tour card two years after resigning his commission from the Navy.
Congressional required the best of everyone on Thursday, and it likely will be that way the rest of the week. The consensus was that the Blue Course felt much more like a U.S. Open than when the U.S. Open was here last year, softened by rain that was out of the USGA's control.
"Not quite what they wanted last year," Love said. "But they got it this year."
The fairways remain narrow. The tees are the same. Even the daunting collection area off the par-5 16th hole is still around.
The scores were slightly higher, though.
"We saw the scoreboard on the 18th green and I said, 'When you've played for 2½ hours and 90 percent of the field is over par, you know it's tough,'" Mahan said. "You're not going to get lucky around here."
Kevin Chappell, who tied for third at the U.S. Open last year, was 5 over through 13 holes and not quite sure how it happened. Even more stunning was his turnaround. He closed with four straight birdies and escaped with a 71.
"It's firm enough that you have to think a lot on every shot where to land them," Chappell said. "If you get out of position, all you think about is how to get back in position. But it's just soft enough that you can make a few birdies. But I don't think they'll be setting any scoring records."
At the top of the board from the morning wave was the 49-year-old Singh, winless on the PGA Tour since taking the Deutsche Bank Championship in 2008 on his way to winning the FedEx Cup.
Give him a 68 at the start of the day and he would gladly have taken it.
"It's good for me," Singh said. "Any time I shoot under par right now is good. I've been playing well for the last month or so, but nothing is coming out of it. Today I made a few putts."