Horschel makes good on Q-school prediction
AVONDALE, La. Billy Horschel is a man of his word.
After sewing up his PGA Tour card at Q-School late last year, Horschel boldly predicted he would win his first Tour title this season. The 26-year-old Horschel did so in dramatic fashion, sinking a 27-foot birdie putt on the final hole of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans to shoot a final-round 8-under 64 for a 268 total and one-stroke victory over D.A. Points.
When the putt fell, Horschel was unable to restrain his excitement. He punched the air in ecstasy time and time again, then bowed his head and buried his face beneath his Ping cap as his eyes grew cloudy with tears of joy. The gallery, which had stayed for a moment like this, exploded. Fans tossed Mardi Gras-style beads from the stands. Fellow Florida Gators Chris DiMarco and Matt Every waited by the green to celebrate with their friend.
“Me and Matt said, ‘There’s no way he doesn’t make this,’ ” DiMarco recalled later.
Arms outstretched, Horschel and DiMarco, a mentor figure for the past eight years, hugged, and clapped each other hard on the back. Soon DiMarco’s eyes would be wet, too, having watched with pride how Horschel tapped into some hidden reservoir of faith that he could do it.
“What’s amazing about Billy is that the belief that he’s got in himself, it knocks out the nerves and anxiousness because he believes in himself so much,” DiMarco said. “He’s that good. Every time I play with him, I don’t know how he’s not winning every week.”
Horschel's former Walker Cup teammate Rickie Fowler echoed that sentiment.
“It’s about damn time,” he said.
Horschel is the first to admit he has been thirsting for his maiden victory. He was a college All-American, a Walker Cupper and destined for stardom when he turned pro in 2009.
“I’ve always felt I was good enough to win out here,” he said. “I just felt like I had to check every box.”
Surgery to his left wrist early in 2010 spoiled his rookie campaign. Then he struggled to keep his card. A body of evidence had begun to accrue, leaving some to question whether he was the genuine article. The pressure was building. And his performance at crunch time – he ranked 108th this year in final-round scoring (71.55) – hasn’t always been pretty.
For all his bluster, Horschel conceded that he had yielded to nerves on occasion. He began to turn the corner when his remarkable run of consistency – four consecutive finishes of ninth or better – began late last month in Houston.
“That tie for second (in Houston) was huge because I’ve been in position many times going into the final round whether leading or being near the lead and not performed as well as I would have liked,” he said.
The runner-up paycheck also effectively locked up his card for next year and freed him to play more aggressively. Brandishing a devil’s smile, he warned of “Scary Billy.” Most had only the vaguest idea what that meant until he surged into the lead a week later at the Valero Texas Open. But his nerves betrayed him under the final round pressure, turning his legs to Jell-O.
“Like my legs weren’t under me,” he said. “Everything felt like Jell-O – probably because I was a little nervous and everything.”
Though Horschel managed to rally late to tie for third, Martin Laird sprinted past him. Horschel didn’t sulk in defeat. In a classy gesture, he disappeared for a moment, jogging back to the 18th green after signing autographs and congratulated Laird on his masterful 63.
Horschel was in the hunt again on Sunday at the RBC Heritage Classic, but paid a stiff penalty on the closing holes over the weekend and finished T-9.
Truth be told, there was one setback that hurt more than the others, he said. At the 2011 McGladrey Classic, on a Seaside course in Sea Island, Ga., that he knew well from college, playing in front of his coach and family and friends, Horschel’s lead melted away as he skied to a 75 and a tie for 20th. His instructor, Todd Anderson, and family members expressed their displeasure with his on-course behavior. Horschel slammed clubs and hung his head.
“It was pretty pathetic, in my mind,” he said. “I had to deal with my emotions a little better.”
It also proved to be a key moment in his maturation process.
“All the other close calls, none of them put a scar on me at all,” Horschel said. “I think it just gave me more motivation to work hard and get that first victory.”
Horschel is the type who wears his emotions on his sleeve. His self-confidence at times has been confused for cockiness.
“It used to be kind of a fake confidence,” Every said.
Not anymore. Horschel didn’t think he was going to win in New Orleans; he expected it. And his bold words can’t be called cocky if he can back it up.
“This whole week I felt like I’m going to get my victory here,” he said.
In fact, when he exchanged pleasantries with Martin Senn, Zurich Insurance's chief executive officer, on Wednesday night, the tournament’s eve, he joked, “Hey, my plan is I’m going to see you on the 18th green.”
Horschel was referring, of course, to the trophy presentation.
“I think it was more of a stupid comment than anything,” he said, the champion’s trophy now etched with his name.
But it almost wasn’t to be. On Friday, Horschel was in danger of missing the cut. Through his first eight holes (he started play on the back nine), Horschel was 3 over par for the round after hitting his tee shot in the water at No. 17 and making double bogey. His Tour-best streak of 23 cuts made in a row looked to be jeopardy.
“I was at 2 under (overall for the tournament and the cut came at minus-3),” Horschel said, “but I knew I was playing well. I said, ‘Stay patient,’ and I knew I could turn it around, and obviously I did.”
With four birdies over his final 10 holes, Horschel rallied for a 1-under 71 and weathered the kind of jittery passage from which most golfers never recover. With a bogey-free 66 on Saturday, he lurked two shots back of Lucas Glover.
Horschel embraced being the pursuer this time. Tee times for the final round were pushed up several hours because of the prediction for heavy rains. With the lift, clean and place rule in effect, Horschel kept up his pursuit, hitting a three-quarters pitching wedge to 5 feet for birdie at the fifth hole to cut his deficit in half before play was suspended for the first time. The break lasted more than 3 hours as the TPC Louisiana course was doused in more than an inch of rain.
“For some reason,” he said, “I’ve always come back from delays and played really strong.”
Probably never quite like this. When play resumed, Horschel strung together six straight birdies beginning at the seventh hole, tying the longest birdie streak on Tour this season, and reached 19 under. He left Glover, the 54-hole leader, in his wake. Glover’s round went sideways at the par-5 seventh when his pitch shot from 70 yards bounded over the green and he stumbled to bogey. Glover, who would not make a birdie until the 10th hole, shot 71 and finished T-4.
Jimmy Walker, who also was seeking his first Tour victory, eagled the seventh and birdied the eighth to keep pace with Horschel at 16 under, but Walker missed the green at the ninth, made double, and faded from the picture. His day will come.
Only D.A. Points, playing in Horschel’s group, kept pace. He birdied his fourth hole in a row, at the 13th, to improve to 18 under and close within one stroke. Two holes later, Horschel made his lone hiccup. A crooked drive led to the only green he missed in regulation all day. When he failed to get up and down, Horschel and Points shared the lead. One hole later, Horschel steadied himself, wedging to 5 feet, and regained the lead at 19 under.
“I knew I could be aggressive taking it over that bunker and leaving myself a short wedge,” Horschel said.
By now, storm clouds were massing over the course again. Horschel and Points made pars at 17. After a long wait for the group ahead of them to play, Horschel “snipe-hooked it left” off the tee at 18, and the horn blew suspending play for a second time. It was shades of the Shell Houston Open all over again, only this time Horschel didn’t have to fret over the tee shot. Horschel killed time in the sanctuary of the clubhouse, hanging out with Every and DiMarco.
“It felt like we were in there 20 minutes and went back out right away,” he said.
They returned to the course at 5:27 p.m. local time. The finish line was within sight. But so much can happen on the par-5 finishing hole. It had become a test of wills between Points and Horschel, with Horschel holding a slight edge. At Houston, Points had sunk a 13-foot par putt on the final hole to claim the title and avoid a playoff with Horschel.
Thanks to the 52-minute suspension of play, Horschel had given plenty of consideration to his second shot and didn’t believe the possible rewards of pumping 3-wood justified the risk. He was too far to go for it, and selected an 8-iron. But after a moment of hesitation, he asked his caddie, Micah Fugitt, for his advice.
“If we’re gonna lay up, let’s lay up,” Fugitt said.
Horschel switched to the 9-iron and advanced back to the fairway. Meanwhile, Points wasted little time choosing 3-wood from 264 yards and ripped it into the front greenside bunker. A birdie seemed highly possible. From 134 yards, Horschel hit wedge and held his pose. He thought it was all over the flag, but it came up 27 feet short of the back, right hole location.
Points, who fired a bogey-free 65, picked the ball cleanly off the sand, exploding to within 5 feet to apply the pressure on Horschel.
The situation was eminently clear. Make the 27-foot birdie putt and Horschel clinches victory. Miss and he’d likely be headed for a playoff. A squint at the target and Horschel was ready to go. He never bothered to discuss the read with his caddie.
“I saw the line right away and I said, ‘I’m due to make a long one, and I was like, you know, if it’s my time, this putt needs to go in,’ ” Horschel said.
His time had come. Points, who led the applause, fully understood the significance of the moment.
“To hole that putt after the delay and knowing that I had a really good look at birdie, that if he wanted to end it now, it had to go in. The thing was pure,” Points said. “My hat's off to him. He’s played great all year, so he deserves it.”
Scary that Horschel has been scary good. And as the veteran DiMarco predicted: “This is just the beginning.”