After his haunting 84, Billy Horschel finds redemption

billy horschel

Billy Horschel looks on during the first round of the Memorial Tournament Thursday in Dublin, Ohio.

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Billy Horschel was more nervous than normal when he woke up Thursday. He had a tee time at the Memorial, which is worth begin nervous about. He is a sponsor’s exemption in this Signature Event, which is also worth being nervous about. But part of his nerves were tied to what happened 12 months ago, when he shot an opening-round 12-over 84 at Muirfield Village and said his confidence is the “lowest it’s been.”  

“I’ve been thinking about it since Tuesday,” Horschel said Thursday. “Every hole I played this week, I’m thinking, God, how bad I played that hole on Thursday last year.”

Pro golfers have incredible memories, and often use them to their advantage. But sometimes they remember things too well. And that’s certainly the case with Horschel at Muirfield.

“That 84 still lingers a little bit,” Horschel said. “I think it’s just that one little thing that I just need to get over and to play well today. I hit quality golf shots, and sort of get back into, you know, I guess, hopefully, get over the hump of what happened here last year.”

That round was messy. Horschel had been battling a miss that started left and went left. The lie angles on his clubs were all screwed up. 

But more than his score or his misses or his clubs, you may remember Horschel’s words that followed. The video of his Thursday press availability, tweeted out by’s Dylan Dethier, has now been viewed more than 3 million times. When you watch it, it’s easy to understand why it went viral:

It oozed vulnerability, a bit of shame, disappointment — a man looking to just let the world know that he’s fully aware of what was happening to him, bothered by it, confused and seeking relief. Speaking about his woes was cathartic, he said, and he woke up the next morning feeling completely different. 

“Just sort of getting it off my chest and everything,” Horschel said this week, “and then from there, I could sort of start moving forward again.”

Pro golf is filled with resets. Bad front nine? Reset at the turn. Bad first round? Reset for Friday’s sprint at the cut. Bad tournament? You’ve got another next week. But this one had been brewing for Horschel. Getting some thoughts off his chest allowed him to exorcise one horrendous round and play solid golf the next day. A 72 — even par. 

It may be 12 months ago, but Horschel still thinks about that moment as a turning point. Shooting 84 as the defending champion was, to him, the lowest of lows. But he realized he plays his best golf when he’s being himself, when he’s sharing his thoughts, when he can be vulnerable. 

“I mean, the amount of texts and calls I received over the next week, the amount of messages I received on social media was overwhelming,” he says, looking back. “I was so thankful for people reaching out and taking the time of day to sort of just give me a few uplifting words to continue forward … I’ve always tried to be as human and as — no different than anyone else doing anything else in the world except that we do something on a public stage and we do something we have to put ourselves out there on a limb and be very vulnerable on a daily basis and play at a high level, and that’s what we do compared to the majority of people in this world.”

Not two months after that teary press conference, Horschel contended at the Wyndham Championship. In March of this year, he was building form again, with three top 12 finishes. Then, during the week of the RBC Heritage, Horschel was down in the Dominican Republic at an opposite field event, and it all clicked. He shot a final-round 63, vaulted up the leaderboard and won by two. Which is, in part, what brought him back to the Memorial. 

The long road back to Muirfield required Horschel to write a letter and argue for his value as a sponsor’s exemption. To write to Jack Nicklaus and his son and say, Hey, as a former champion of this event, I would greatly appreciate an opportunity to play this year. A lot of pros are writing those letters these days. Many more are declined than accepted. But Horschel earned one of four bids. And once he arrived on-site this year, he couldn’t stop thinking about last year. 

Even after shooting 69 in the first round, a clear 15 shots better than 12 months ago. 

“Like I said, there is a little scar tissue from here last year, but I think hopefully I got over that today.”

Probably, Billy. Horschel made five birdies Thursday, drove it better than nearly anyone in the tournament and made 115 feet of putts. That’ll produce a good day on any course, but particularly on one of the tougher setups Tour pros face.

After his redemptive first round, Horschel once again ran through the nuances of his struggles last year — how the lie angles of his irons were 2 to 3 degrees off and how his swing was technically sound, but had seen a lot of bad shots and how he needed to replace those shots in the memory bank with the sight of good ones. These are the machinations pro golfers work through while carving out a number that represents their workday. Sometimes it’s a good number. Sometimes it isn’t. Treating them similarly can be hard to do. 

“It’s golf and we’re all going to have good rounds, we’re all going to have bad rounds,” Horschel said Thursday. “And, honestly, what it comes to is wake up the next day and coming out and giving it your best and giving it everything you got to try to play a good round of golf again.”

Sean Zak Editor

Sean Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just published his first book, which follows his travels in Scotland during the most pivotal summer in the game’s history.

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