Horschel-McIlroy: Fire and reign

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SAN FRANCISCO – In a special, #ThrowBackThursday moment at Harding Park, Billy Horschel was asked what he remembered about the 2007 Walker Cup.

“I don’t remember anything,” he deadpanned with only the slightest hint of sheepishness.

You may not know this about BillyHo, but he can trend to the Lewis Black side of boisterous, so when the 20-year-old version was sent afield to play for his country at the ’07 Walker Cup he openly admits he may have toed the line of decorum in what turned into a particularly heated match.

When pressed for more details from his week at Royal County Down, Horschel recalled playing Rory McIlroy three times (twice in singles). He remembers the emotions of playing for the United States and his teammates. He remembers wanting to win so badly that he may have let those emotions get the best of him.

“I was a very confident, could be called a cocky person, a very emotional person about things, especially in that match,” Horschel said Thursday at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play.

McIlroy – who would drop two matches to Horschel at that Walker Cup, including a Saturday singles match, before exacting a measure of redemption with a dominant victory over Horschel in Sunday singles – remembers things slightly differently.


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“His antics really pissed me off,” McIlroy told Golf Digest in 2008. “He was so loud and so obnoxious.”

By comparison, Friday’s final group match between the world No. 1 and the reigning FedEx Cup champion at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play will undoubtedly follow Queensbury rules, yet it still has all the markings of the week’s most compelling bout.

For all the misgivings of the new-look WGC-Match Play, confusion over the round-robin format being the primary culprit, it was the potential of just this type of scenario that made all of the mind-numbing math manageable.

“When I saw my group I was like, well, that’s not the easiest one,” Horschel said of McIlroy’s group, which includes Brandt Snedeker and Jason Dufner. “I thought if you can get out of that group you’ve done something special.”

To the delight of organizers, the cosmic tumblers delivered Friday’s title bout. McIlroy cruised to victory on Day 1, beating Dufner, 5 and 4, and he edged Snedeker, 2 up, on Thursday. While Horschel rolled past Snedeker in Round 1, 5 and 4, and was a 3-and-2 winner over Dufner on Day 2.

Whoever wins Friday’s match advances to the Sweet 16 and single elimination on Saturday.

It’s one of just four matches on Friday between unbeaten players, bringing a rare level of certainty to an event that seems to have lost a measure of intrigue with the endless permutations brought on by the new format.

That the Rory vs. BillyHo duel rekindles a rivalry that was born from those ’07 matches is only part of the Hollywood-ready script.

As recently as last fall McIlroy and Horschel were set against each other on another bright stage.

McIlroy, who began last year’s playoffs first in FedEx Cup points, was paired with Horschel the last two rounds at East Lake. The American beat the Northern Irishman by a stroke over those two days and, more importantly, won the finale and the season-long race.

“If he wins the Tour Championship and wins the FedEx Cup that’s probably one of the top-five greatest seasons of all time,” Horschel said. “I stopped him from that. If anything, he’s going to come out with a little bit more, not that he needs it, but a little more fuel to maybe redeem himself.”

Both players were clear that they put the contentiousness of the ’07 Walker Cup behind them long ago. When Horschel lost the Deutsche Bank Championship on the 72nd hole last year, McIlroy was there to console him. Horschel encouraged McIlroy when he was going through a slump in 2013.

“Back then we were a little bit younger and a little more emotional,” McIlroy said. “It was pretty heated. I don’t think tomorrow will be quite so much like that, but still you need to win or you go home.”

In signature Horschel style, he referred to himself as a “road block” to McIlroy this week, similar to last year’s Tour Championship and perhaps even the ’07 Walker Cup.

What’s different this time is that through age and injury both players have matured. There will be no histrionics like those on display eight years ago at Royal County Down.

At those matches Horschel’s teammates – a list that included Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson and Chris Kirk – nicknamed him “Steve O,” because his shaved head made him look like the main character from the TV show “Jackass.”

“You know what, I probably was a jackass back then,” Horschel smiled.

The difference this time is that on Friday he’ll simply be a world-class golfer playing a much-anticipated match that promises to be unforgettable.