No one is bringing Merion Golf Club to its knees – yet – but Billy Horschel put on a shot-making clinic the likes of which have rarely been seen at a U.S. Open. He hit all 18 greens in regulation, shades of David Graham’s memorable performance that won him the title here in 1981. Yet neither Horschel nor his caddie seemed to have any idea what he had achieved.
“I didn’t know I hit every green until I walked off 18,” he said. “It’s a cool thing.”
So cool that when he drained an 18-foot putt for a rare birdie on the last it added up to 3-under 67, the low round of the day. It made him the 36-hole clubhouse leader at a total of 1-under 139.
Hitting 18 greens in regulation in a round is so rare that it hasn’t been done in a U.S. Open in more than 20 years. It’s just the latest highlight for the 26-year-old Horschel, who is finally hitting his stride. An injury to his left wrist sidelined his rookie campaign; when he recovered, he struggled to keep his Tour card. Horschel is in the midst of a breakout season, having notched his first victory at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in April and six top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour. When Horschel finally broke through with his maiden victory, his former Walker Cup teammate Rickie Fowler summed it up best: “It’s about damn time,” he said.
Horschel played 29 holes Friday. He reached the par-5 second hole in two for his first birdie of the round and tacked on back-to-back birdies at Nos. 10 and 11. The lone blemish on his card was a three-putt bogey on the slippery surface of the 13th hole.
Horschel also missed just two fairways in his round: into the right intermediate rough on the fourth hole and a left fairway bunker on the sixth. He nearly made birdie on the latter, picking a 5-iron clean from the sand to 10 feet.
He capped off the round by parking a long iron from 25 yards short of the Hogan plaque to 18 feet past the hole on the left. He lifted his putter in celebration as the left-to-right putt split the cup.
All day long, Horschel’s drives fit the contours of the fairway, his irons were sharp and he possessed great distance control with his putter. Horschel settled for hitting approaches in the 20-25 foot range. He made one orthodox par after another in what was largely a low-stress round.
Well, that is with one exception. On the 15th green, Horschel’s ball moved after he had placed his ball in front of his marker. He hadn’t addressed the putt yet so he wisely called over a rules official to explain what happened and he wasn’t penalized.
In the past, it was the type of situation that might sidetrack the easily-excitable Horschel. At the University of Florida, where he was a four-time All-American, Horschel’s game quickly flourished, but he was always one loose swing or bad break away from self-combustion. His coach, Buddy Alexander, knew it spelled trouble, and hounded him to control his emotions. On this day, Horschel exhibited great patience and course management, but admits there’s still room for improvement.
“It’s not that I don’t hit the panic button, I just don’t press right away,” he said. “Patience is something that has always been a struggle for me.”
Self-confidence is not. Horschel is known for his bold statements, such as proclaiming at Q-School last December, where he retained his Tour privileges, that he would win this year. It’s not bold if you can back it up.
For all his bluster, Horschel admitted that he had yielded to nerves on occasion, such as when he held he 54-hole lead at the Valero Texas Open in April. Under final-round pressure, he said his legs turned to Jell-O. That wasn’t the case in New Orleans, where he coolly canned a 27-foot birdie putt on the final hole to win.
At the U.S. Open, Horschel got off to a rocky 2-over-par start through seven holes when play was suspended Thursday because of darkness. He didn’t hit the panic button, another lesson he learned in New Orleans, where Horschel was in danger of missing the cut. Through his first eight holes, Horschel was 3-over-par for the round after hitting his tee shot in the water and making double bogey. His Tour-best streak of 23 cuts made in a row (at the time) looked to be jeopardy. With four birdies during his final 10 holes, Horschel rallied for a 1-under 71 and weathered the kind of jittery passage from which many golfers never recover.
Horschel wasn’t too surprised that his ball-striking shined Friday. He downplayed the accomplishment, saying he’s hit all 18 greens in regulation before and noted soft greens aided his effort. But he spoke with his usual self-assurance about the possibility of playing with players such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, with whom he played a practice round Wednesday, during the weekend.
“I want to be one of the best players in the world,” he said. “I think to get there you have to feel comfortable playing with those guys on a daily basis.”
This is Horschel’s first appearance in a major as a professional (he played in the 2006 Open at Winged Foot as an amateur), and he said he was taking his position at the top of the leaderboard in stride. He said tomorrow will be “a new experience.” Horschel’s plan is to treat it like just another tournament. Easier said than done, according to NBC Sports commentator Johnny Miller.
“I’ve heard that about 500 times and it hasn’t worked one time,” Miller said. “It is not just another tournament. You’ve got to know you are facing this mad lion and you’ve got to deal with it.”
Miller continued: “It is a tough, tough test and it is our national championship, and you just have to deal with it and perform. You can’t just say it is the Hershey Bar Open or something.”
Horschel’s round might have been the first time a player hit all 18 greens in regulation since Miller did so at Oakmont 40 years ago (the USGA was still researching if anyone had done so between 1973 and 1992). Horschel’s performance was shades of David Graham, in his final-round 67 to win the 1981 U.S. Open. Graham used a putter after every approach shot but the USGA said that on three occasions Graham landed on the fringe. The other difference? Horschel did it Friday; Graham and Miller in Sunday’s pressure-cooker. Tomorrow is only Saturday.