KAPALUA, Hawaii – Billy Horschel is patient.
I know this because he tells me while we sit by a window in the player lounge at Kapalua’s Plantation Course, his eyes darting from the 18th fairway to a football game on the nearby television to a blister on his left index finger that he picks at in between bites of a sandwich. He sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as much as me, as if the fidgeting doesn’t happen if he simply downplays its existence.
“I think I get better each year,” he suggests. “Or at least I try to get better each year. But it's tough for me.”
So far, Horschel’s increasing patience has paid off in the form of a PGA Tour victory, top-50 classification and status as a budding star. And it continues to pay off. One day after our interview, he’ll three-putt the first hole of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions to make double bogey. Three days later, he’ll post 7-under 66 to move from 19th place to a share of sixth, though still fidgeting afterward with nervous energy and fretting over what might have been.
On the golf course, he is a bounding ball of energy, a whirling dervish of fist pumps and club slams. Every player claims he hates slow play, but Horschel abhors it – and has worked hard not to let it serve as his Kryptonite.
Off of it, he’s more subdued, though never quite relaxed, like a guy who should have switched to decaf two cups ago. He’s 27 going on 12, mature yet innocent, with tastes that confirm these mannerisms.
“I'm a big kid,” he admits. “I love drinking chocolate milk. I'm not afraid to watch some cartoons once in a while when I'm with my nieces and actually be attentive.”
Not surprisingly, Horschel wasn’t much different as a child. Growing up in Grant, Fla., he learned to play golf in his family’s large backyard, spending hours hitting balls over a pond. “I really was adamant about golfers not going out on the golf course before they're ready,” says his father, Bill. Nothing wrong with that, until Billy turned around and tried to hit ’em back over the house, breaking nearly every window in the process.
“I remember one time when he finally hit it over the house,” says his mother, Kathy. “When he went to hit it back, he hit it through the front living-room window. We were sitting out back waiting for him to carry the balls around and he didn't come and he didn't come. Then when my husband went around, he was in his bedroom, like, ‘I didn't do that.’”
Consider him a ball-striking Bart Simpson, a troublemaking scamp so charming that nobody can stay mad at him too long. Not that Horschel himself doesn’t hold some grudges.
An accomplished junior player whose talents drew the interest of many college coaches, he signed with his dream school, the University of Florida, but the whole recruiting process ultimately left him with a bad taste in his mouth.
“I'm a realist and I understand that I didn't deserve to be recruited to all these top schools and get all these offers,” he recalls. “I thought that I was going to get something from them or at least get a little more interest, and it didn't happen. When I played against those teams and those coaches, I wanted to play really well and just pretty much shove it in their face.”
He did, becoming a four-time All-America selection for the Gators and a member of the 2007 Walker Cup team. And junior golf wasn’t a total wash, either. While competing in a tournament at Doral a decade ago, he met Brittany Nelson, herself an incoming freshman on the school’s women’s golf team. They started dating, continued throughout their college years and in 2010, they married – and he still hasn’t beaten her in a putting contest.
“Like, never,” Brittany says with a knowing smile. “He still has yet to beat me in one.”
The 20 or so putting losses don’t get him too upset – hey, he’s patient after all! – but Horschel can’t always maintain such zen-like qualities.
“I try to be very relaxed and easygoing off the course,” he explains. “(But) I'm still intense. When somebody doesn't use common sense, I get frustrated. When I'm driving down the highway and someone is in the left‑hand lane and they're going very slow, sometimes I just go around them and other times I'll be in the mood where I flash my lights and yell at them, like, ‘What the heck are you doing? Get the heck out of my way! You're not passing anybody! You're doing 70 in the left‑hand lane!”
See? He really does hate slow play.
Billy Horschel is confident.
This is the part of the story where I should remind you of Horschel’s interview with Golf Channel after the 2012 edition of Q-School. It was his fourth consecutive year at the qualifying tournament and while he’d found a modicum of success in the big leagues – he missed just two cuts in 17 starts that year – he wasn’t on anybody’s short list of rising stars. But after clinching his card for another year, Horschel was asked about his job prospects and offered up his best Joe Namath:
“I'm going to win next year. No doubt about it.”
Five months later, he fulfilled that prophecy, winning the Zurich Classic on a final-hole birdie that was punctuated by the PGA Tour’s most primal scream of the year. And yet, even his declaration and realization don’t serve as the prime examples of confidence. No, that happened a month later, when Horschel competed in his first career major championship as a professional, getting into contention at the U.S. Open before arriving for the final round wearing octopus-print slacks.
There’s no distinct measuring device for confidence, but know this much: Dudes who show up for the biggest round of their lives to howls of “SpongeBill SquidPants” have plenty of it.
“Trust me, I got plenty of comments from guys on Twitter saying, ‘I hope you shoot 100, you're a freaking fool for wearing these.’ I could care less,” he says. “I'm happy I played halfway decent and finished well. They probably would not have been that big of a thing if I would have faltered on Sunday, but I didn't because I knew I wouldn't.”
There it is again. Confidence.
Or is it actually Confidence’s ugly cousin? Is it the dreaded Cockiness? Even Horschel thinks the lines are blurred.
“I’m confident; I try not to go cocky …”
“… the confident, cocky Billy thinks I can be the best player out here …”
“… sure, I’ve said comments in the past that have been on the cocky side …”
“… but I just feel like I’m on the perfect borderline of being confident and cocky.”
That’s a commendable sentiment, though even his mother believes he might have crossed over that borderline.
“I call him cocky,” she says, “and it’s not cocky in a bad way. He just always knew what he wanted. A lot of his friends drifted from one thing to the other, but he always knew what he wanted. If that’s what you call cocky, then OK.”
Four years ago, Horschel received an exemption into the AT&T National. He’d never met tournament host Tiger Woods, but sought him out in the player dining room to say thanks.
“I talked to him for a couple minutes, and he rattled off some of the stats I did in college, which was shocking to me,” he remembers. “He was the No. 1 player in the world, has so many other things on his plate and has to remember so many other things, and he remembers a couple of my stats that I had in college.”
Since then, Horschel has forged a friendship with the player who, along with Fred Couples and Greg Norman, he most looked up to as a kid. Prior to competing with Woods for two rounds at Torrey Pines last year, he told reporters, “I’m going to be myself, I’m going to talk. You know what? If he wants to listen, he’s more than welcome to listen. If not, I’m still going to keep talking. He doesn’t have to respond back, I’ll just keep yapping away.”
Two months later, Horschel was featured during a segment on “Inside the PGA Tour” showing his workout regimen, which includes 42-inch box jumps. Woods couldn’t resist the opportunity to give him some needling the next morning at Bay Hill.
“I’m out there warming up and Tiger is on the range, and he comes over and he’s got this big, goofy‑ass grin on his face,” he recalls. “I said, ‘What are you effing smiling at? What do you got that effing grin for?’ He’s like, ‘It’s true.’ I said, ‘What’s true?’ He said, ‘White men can’t jump.’
“I pretty much told him to go eff off, and we had a little talk, and a couple days later he’s on the range before the second round. He sees me and he’s saying ‘credit card.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, give me a little more credit than that.’ I walk by him, walk around the cameras, and there was a cooler. I say, ‘Hey, look at this.’ I wanted to jump and make it look like it was really hard for me to jump up on the cooler. Well, as I jumped I didn’t realize the cooler lid was broken in, and I busted my ass in front of him. So it was funny. He got a good joke out of that.
“That’s not me trying to impress him, that’s just me being me and being a dumbass once in a while and trying to be too goofy and show off too much.”
It isn’t often that a young player, especially a young player who at that point hadn’t won anything, can feel so comfortable around Woods. Likewise, it isn’t often that Woods takes to a young player who hasn’t won anything.
“Billy’s a great guy and someone I enjoy playing golf with,” Woods says. “He had a really solid season last year, and it was good to see him get a win.”
I asked Horschel what it’s like to not only play alongside a guy he idolized, but also earn his respect. He responded by shrugging off any notion of hero worship.
You’re not intimidated by him, are you?
Are you intimidated by anybody?
That doesn’t mean, though, that he isn’t a little more excited by some pairings than others, his confidence quickly giving way to cockiness.
“When I’m on the golf course in front of certain players, I want to show them, hey, I’m the s---,” he explains. “I want to show them that I’m not just this kid who won one time and talks a big game. I want to show them that I’m a really good player.”
Billy Horschel is emotional.
Sometimes too emotional. It’s fun to watch him celebrate birdies with the enthusiasm of a wide receiver who catches the game-winning touchdown, but just as uncomfortable to see him pouting when things aren’t going his way.
Consider the second round of last year’s Greenbrier Classic a tipping point. This was after the Zurich win, after the U.S. Open contention, after he’d reached top 50 in the world and clinched his card for two more years and secured an invitation to the next Masters. Even with these accolades, he still hadn’t mellowed.
“I was hitting good shots and felt like I wasn’t getting rewarded,” he recalls. “I was just being a little too loud and a little too vocal and complaining a little too much after shots. The guys in my group are great guys, and I appreciate that they said something to me.”
Horschel doesn’t name names, but a check of that day’s tee sheet shows Boo Weekley was one of them.
“Yeah, it was me,” Weekley admits. “He’d already won New Orleans and he was playing well. I’m struggling to make the cut and he just kept on whining, like, ‘I can’t get a break, I can’t get a break.’ There wasn’t really nothing to it; he just needed to grow up a little bit. His playing partners don’t want to hear him saying all that.
“When we got done playing, I sat down with him. Every now and then, you need to be put back in your place. That’s kind of what I did. It wasn’t anything derogatory toward him. He just needed to calm down a little bit, because there’s other people trying to play.”
Says Horschel, “When someone comes and tells me, it makes me aware of it, and I appreciate it. You know, not every guy is like me where someone can tell them the truth and be fine with it.”
A search on Google images turns up a photo of Horschel with a golf club between his gritted teeth. Another with a club flying out of his hands. More than a few with big smiles or big scowls; plenty with his head in his hands or his hat flipped around backward.
For those who complain that professional golfers are too staid and stoic, too robotic and reserved, Horschel serves as the antithesis. He doesn’t fit the profile, all of which is part of his appeal.
“Everyone says they don’t feel [their] age, but I still feel like a kid,” he says. “I just feel like a kid that has some money now, that can take care of my family. … I think I’ll always be a kid. I’m always messing around, always running around, always trying to have a good time.”
“I’m OK with his emotion,” declares fellow player Bill Haas. “I can relate to it, I’ve got a little bit of that in me. I think it’s the reason he’s good. As long as he does it in a positive manner, it’s good for our game.”
It is golf’s ultimate Catch-22: You can’t have a good time without playing great golf, but in many respects you can’t play great golf without first having a good time doing so.
Horschel has learned that the hard way. He’s learned to channel the emotion into positive vibes, not that he’s always successful.
“Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad,” he says. “When I’m playing well, that emotion keeps me playing even better and keeps me pushing even harder. And when I’m making a couple bad mistakes and I’m sort of just lollygagging out there, really not focused, I’ll get on myself.
“But also there’s a bad side where I get on myself when I don’t need to, when I get too angry at myself for hitting a bad shot or things that happen that way. That’s what I’m trying to limit.”
Billy Horschel is talented.
Not every player can be Tiger Woods or Jordan Spieth, turning professional and finding instant stardom. For most, even those with proverbially “all the tools,” there is a certain metamorphosis that occurs. These players might spend two or three or even four years trapped in the developmental cocoon, but when they do emerge, they emerge as fully blossomed talents.
Horschel broke free from his cocoon on March 31 of last year. Entering that week’s Shell Houston Open, he owned exactly three top-10 results in 57 starts as a pro. But on that day, he followed a third-round 67 with a closing 66. When he finished, he anxiously stood next to the scoring trailer, a camera lens affixed upon him intently watching D.A. Points play the final hole. Points holed a 13-foot par putt to nip him by a stroke, but Horschel was clearly on the verge of emerging.
One week later, he finished in a share of third place at the Valero Texas Open. In his next start, he was T-9 at the RBC Heritage. And in the next one, he finally broke through for that first career win at the Zurich.
The metamorphosis was complete.
Now the player who took years to blossom is talking big things, like major championships and Ryder Cup teams.
“I want to be the best player in the world one day,” he says. “I want to win X amount of majors, X amount of PGA Tour events. But I think for all that to happen, I've just got to try and become the best player I possibly can. That leads to winning more and winning majors and playing on Ryder Cups and Presidents Cup teams and maybe one day being No. 1 player in the world.”
For a guy who is emotional and confident and possibly even patient, staying focused on that goal is a main priority.
“I can't control what Tiger does or Phil or Jordan or Rickie (Fowler) or anybody else out here does. I've learned over the years that those distractions have affected me, and I've learned to deal with that.”
As Brittany maintains, “One thing you learn about Billy, he'll say some crazy things, but he usually lives up to most of the things he says.”
He’s got plenty to live up to now. Horschel’s own expectations have been joined by the expectations of others who have taken notice of his talent.
“He’s a young stud who’s going to be out here a long time,” Haas says. “He’s a top-50 player for the rest of his career, if he wants to be.”
Horschel’s game is one that was learned and practiced and honed in that big backyard, hitting balls over the pond and over the house and, yes, through more than a few windows. It was there that he developed his confidence – or cockiness – even knowing the end goal from an early age.
“He kept telling people, ‘I'm going to be a professional golfer,’ his father says. “Guys would say, ‘This sounds kind of crazy,’ and I would say, ‘No, it's not.’”
Now he’s living the dream. Horschel takes another bite of his sandwich, then averts his eyes from the 18th fairway and the football game on the nearby television and the blister on his index finger. He stops fidgeting and looks me in the eye.
“I always wanted to be a professional athlete,” he says. “I love my life.”