ARDMORE, Pa. – There is a certain type of player who contends at the annual teeth-gnasher known as the U.S. Open Championship. He looks more relaxed than Fred Couples on a beach vacation. His resting heart rate is barely north of dead. And most importantly, he owns the patience of a kindergarten teacher.
Enter Billy Horschel.
The 26-year-old is a jittery ball of excess energy. He bounds down the fairways like a pre-teen who spit out his ADD medication. You know that old saying, “He makes coffee nervous”? He’s way past that. This guy could wear out a gallon of espresso.
So it stands to reason that the U.S. Open and Horschel would make for a dysfunctional couple.
He even admits it. Earlier this week, prior to the latest edition of the tournament here at Merion Golf Club, Horschel was asked about owning that necessary characteristic. “Obviously,” he said while fidgeting with a club on the practice range, “I don’t have very much patience.”
What he does have is talent – and plenty of it. He proved it Friday with a second-round 3-under 67 that gave him a share of the clubhouse lead with Phil Mickelson entering the weekend.
But his talent wouldn’t have shown through without some added emphasis on the patience.
“I know it's a big event; I know it's a historical event,” said Horschel, whose 67 followed an opening-round total of 72. “But one thing that me and [sports psychologist] Fran [Pirozzolo] have worked on is limiting the distractions. I get distracted too easily out there on the golf course and off the golf course. So it's more or less just focus on what I do, don't worry about anybody else. Don't worry about the crowd noise. Don't worry about what your playing partners are doing. Just focus on what I'm trying to do.”
That focus resulted in hitting 18 greens in regulation – the first player to accomplish the feat in at least 15 years, according to the USGA, and possibly much longer.
On a course so fondly remembered for Ben Hogan’s ball-striking abilities years ago, Horschel solidified himself as a confident version of the modern-day ball-striker.
“Some of the pins you can take on, and there are some pins if you do take on and you miss, you miss badly. You pay the price for it,” he explained. “I was pretty happy if I hit 20, 25 feet.”
While his round included plenty of ups and not many downs – his lone bogey came on the par-3 13th hole – Horschel tried to keep cool in the burgeoning Philadelphia sunlight.
That’s not easy for a guy who doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeves, but envelops himself in a coat of them.
When he stood outside the scoring trailer after the final round of the Shell Houston Open two months ago, waiting to see if his score would be good enough for a playoff, he swayed back and forth, side to side, barely keeping still before learning that he had lost by a stroke to D.A. Points. When he earned his first career PGA Tour victory four weeks later at the Zurich Classic, he fist-pumped his way around the course for four days, culminating in a winning birdie putt on the last hole.
The U.S. Open, though, is a patient man’s game. Horschel is more than willing to play that game – now he’s showing that he’s able, too.
“Patience is something that has always been a struggle for me,” he admitted. “I'm doing a really good job of it this week, staying patient and just taking what's in front of me. I'm trying to keep a smile on my face and be happy with anything I do. If I can execute every shot, that's all I can try to do out there this week.”
“You give him stuff and he does it,” said Pirozzolo, who has been working with Horschel since last June. “He should get all the credit for making the changes that he’s made. He just works on stuff he likes, then goes out and does it. He’s fascinated by his training. Too many players are too self-satisfied and scared to death about failure. Billy isn’t that kind of guy.”
It all makes sense. If there’s one tournament each year where the imposing sense of being scared to death about failure circumvents the commitment to winning, it’s the U.S. Open.
Horschel still owns boundless energy. He’s still a bundle of nerves. He’s still not the type of even-keeled flat-liner you’d expect to contend at this tournament.
He’s worked on it, though. And that newfound patience – coupled with ball-striking abilities that even Hogan would have admired – have him on top of the leaderboard entering one of the biggest weekends of the year.