ATLANTA – Remember that 6-iron?
You know, the one that laid sod over Billy Horschel’s second shot on the 72nd hole at the Deutsche Bank Championship three weeks ago and sent social media into a frenzy?
Well, on Sunday at the Tour Championship that same maligned 6-iron, along with the 13 other more non-descript implements in his bag, helped lift the outspoken Horschel to the Tour Championship title, the FedEx Cup crown and an $11.4 million payday that just a month ago seemed unlikely for anyone outside of his inner circle.
Horschel has now lost a U.S. Open wearing octopus pants and won the PGA Tour’s season-long race wearing your grandmother’s drapes.
Call it “Billy Ho Golf,” complete with a clutch 30 footer on East Lake’s 16th hole for par under gloomy skies to turn the final march, and the mathematical madness that normally defines the season finale, into a Sunday stroll.
There were the occasional awkward moments like when officials explained to Chris Kirk, the points leader coming into the Tour Championship who finished second in the season-long race, that he needed Horschel to finish in a tie for second place to claim the FedEx Cup, but when the eventual champion arrived at the 18th tee with a three-stroke lead the checks were already being printed.
Not bad for a guy who slipped to 82nd on the point list after missing the cut in the post-season opener in New Jersey. From there, however, he was nearly unstoppable, finishing tied for second to Kirk at TPC Boston after that infamous 6-iron found the hazard at the last, and then swept the rest of his starts with victories at the BMW Championship and East Lake.
It was a signature victory for Horschel, who has struggled to contain his emotions in the past. Particularly considering that he set out on Sunday tied with McIlroy for the lead and the GDP of a small nation hanging in the balance.
But with each round the normally excitable Horschel played the role of a flat-liner, oblivious to the ubiquitous leaderboards and the endless collection of FedEx Cup scenarios that dotted East Lake as well as the mounting pressure of playing for a $1.4 million winner’s check and $10 million FedEx Cup bonus cash.
“I woke up this morning and had this sense of calm over me, which is unusual,” said Horschel, who closed with a 68 for a three-stroke victory over Jim Furyk and Rory McIlroy.
That sense of self likely built when he birdied Nos. 4 and 5 to maintain his advantage, but a bogey at the 10th hole dropped him to 10 under, and when Furyk birdied the 15th hole the two were tied atop the year’s final leaderboard.
The lone moment of suspense came when Horschel fanned his drive right of the 16th hole, and he was forced to punch out. The traditional buzz that grips the finale each year on Sunday ignited.
Among the litany of potential outcomes the most surreal involved Rickie Fowler, who would have created a nuclear scenario of a playoff for the title and a separate overtime for the FedEx Cup, when he pulled to within a stroke of the lead early, but he rinsed his tee shot at the sixth and finished his top-5 year with a rare eighth-place finish.
Less than 10 minutes later McIlroy’s magical season essentially ended when his 5-iron found the depths on the same hole to drop the Northern Irishman three strokes out of the lead, and his pursuit of the one thing in professional golf, other than a Masters’ title, that has eluded him.
“I really wanted to win. I really wanted to cap this year off well, even though it's still been a great year,” said McIlroy, who closed with a 71 and finished the year third on the FedEx Cup point list. “You know, I was coming in here with really high hopes and expectations, and I haven't quite been able to play the golf to live up to those.”
Maybe the U.S. team does have a chance later this month at the Ryder Cup if McIlroy drives the ball at Gleneagles like he did on Sunday at East Lake, but don’t count on it.
Of course, Tom Watson may also be wishing he’d have saved one of those captain’s exemptions for Horschel. Over the course of the playoffs “Billy Ho” outplayed the three U.S. picks – Keegan Bradley (who didn’t qualify for the Tour Championship), Webb Simpson and Hunter Mahan – by a combined 37 strokes.
Or maybe Paul Azinger should have sent “Cracking the Code,” his tome to the victorious 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team, to Captain Tom.
But that’s not a concern for Horschel, whose scrambling par at the 16th hole gave him a one-stroke cushion followed by back-to-back bogeys for Furyk to close his round and set the stage for the anti-climactic finish.
“Billy was out ahead all day, and I just couldn’t case him down,” said Furyk, who won the 2010 Tour Championship and FedEx Cup.
For a player who had endured a self-described pedestrian year, before the post-season Horschel had just two top-10 finishes and told his wife just three weeks ago he couldn’t wait for the 2013-14 season to be over, it was the ultimate Cinderella playoff tale.
That a player whose mind has a tendency to race ahead closed out the event with so much on the line only made it that much more compelling.
“Every night I’d send him a text, ‘Holes 1 through 18 are done. Same plan for holes 19 through 36, then 37 through 54 and so on. You have to keep the same mind set,” said Horschel’s swing coach Todd Anderson, the first to coach two separate players to the FedEx Cup crown (Brandt Snedeker, 2012). “(Horschel) can get broad picture really, really quickly.”
As for that much-maligned 6-iron and the fallout from his Boston letdown.
“I’m not afraid of what people say,” said Horschel, whose wife, Brittany, is due with the couple’s first child in two weeks. “Maybe it gives me a little chip I can prove people wrong and that I have what it takes to get the job done.”