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The story behind an unexpected champion

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Tiger Woods was on the golf course on Sunday, which would be a great story if he were playing. Instead, one of the great sports stories of 2016 played out starring the unheralded Billy Hurley III.

Woods is the host of the Quicken Loans National PGA Tour event, which benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation. The role of the foundation is to help young people through education.

Hurley is a 34-year-old journeyman golfer, who got a late start on his career after serving five years in the U.S. Navy. He received an appointment to the Naval Academy in Annapolis and earned a degree in in quantitative economics. During his Navy tour, Lieutenant Hurley spent time on two ships and taught economics at the Naval Academy.

He played his first PGA Tour event in 2012, but lost his spot in 2013. He won it back in 2014, but lost it again for the 2015-2016 tour season.

He was playing in the Quicken Loans National on a sponsor exemption. Hurley was quite familiar with the Congressional Country Club because he was born and grew up in nearby Leesburg, Va. He was the son of Billy Hurley, Jr. and Cheryl Hurley.

Around the time Hurley lost his spot on the PGA Tour, something far worse hit the Hurley family. Billy, Jr. went missing for nearly two weeks.

Billy III announced his father was missing at last year’s Quicken Loans National. The elder Hurley was found alive in Texas on July 28, 2015.

Just 16 days later, Hurley, Jr. was found dead of a “self-inflicted gunshot wound.” It has been a long year for the family, but especially for Hurley III, who was also trying to salvage his career.

Going into this week’s event, Hurley was ranked 607th in the world, but there was some good news. Many of the top players skip the event immediately following last week’s dramatic U.S. Open.

With so many missing, a lower ranked player can steal a victory. But not number 607.

Miraculously, Hurley put all phases of his game together for three days. Going into Sunday’s final round, he held a two-shot lead and was playing alongside two-time U.S. Open Champion Ernie Els.

Els, 34-time Tour winner Vijay Singh, and new professional Jon Rahm mounted serious challenges. On the 15th hole, a 490-yard par 4, Hurley was short of the green with his second shot.

His miraculous chip-in for birdie kept his challengers at bay and gave further proof that a major surprise was nearly complete. He eventually won by three strokes with a 17-under par total of 267.

Billy Hurley III had won his first tournament.

“I couldn’t think of a better tournament for my first PGA Tour win,” Hurley said. “I am thrilled to have gotten it done today.”

His family, minus one, was there to celebrate with him. The significance of what had happened quickly hit him.

“It’s been a hard year,” Hurley said as he struggled to maintain his composure. “It’s nice to have something go well.”

No one, probably not even Hurley, expected him to win when the tournament began. However, there might have been a clue from the Tiger Woods Foundation.

Woods presented the trophy to Hurley, but the foundation’s slogan serves to recap all that had happened on Sunday at Congressional Country Club.

“Unexpected Champions.”

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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