Masters 2015: Billy Horschel Has Eyes On The Biggest Prize of All: A Green Jacket

March 26, 2015

The sun was setting at the Humana Challenge in January when a little girl approached a stylish Tour pro as he walked to the locker room. To her, he looked like a cross between Christian Bale and Adam Levine, and so she asked for his autograph, which he gave. She asked for a picture with him, which he posed for. Then, flustered, the girl confessed that she didn’t know who he was. “No, you’re good,” the pro said, smiling brightly, taking no offense, happy to introduce himself. “I’m Billy Horschel!”

Being Billy Horschel seems about as much as anyone could wish for these days. But becoming Billy Horschel, PGA Tour star, wasn’t easy.

Just a few months earlier, at East Lake, he had walked off the final green at the Tour Championship and into the arms of his parents, Bill and Kathy. He’d just won the tournament and with it the FedEx Cup, culminating a three-week stretch in which he had earned nearly $13.5 million. In the emotional press conference that followed, Horschel, noting that neither his father nor mother had a college degree, called his family “blue-collar to a T.” He also thanked his folks for giving him and his two brothers “such a great opportunity to do great things in this world without the means that other people have.”

He added, “I’m going to take care of them very well.”

Billy Horschel was not a country-club kid. Bill Horschel is a contractor; Kathy works as a supply-chain manager for a high-tech company. As a boy, to get access to free golf at the Majors Golf Club in Palm Harbor, Fla., Billy cleaned carts and picked range balls.

Modest beginnings have led to immodest riches. Horschel is acutely aware of this. He started taking care of his family long before he hit the FedEx mega-jackpot, buying his brothers new vehicles after notching his first Tour win, at the 2013 Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

“It was a shock,” older brother Chris says. “We were at his house, and he said, ‘I want to get you a car. Is that okay?'”

There are more car stories, and chartered planes, too. And acts of insane largesse. Horschel gave one tip with four zeroes in it and another with six—you read that right. Then there was the time he went in his pocket for 900 hoagies.

As generous as Santa, the man nicknamed “Billy Ho” might as well be “Billy Ho Ho Ho.” He doesn’t just say thanks, he shows thanks—in a big way. Because that’s the Billy Horschel way. In everything he does, he doesn’t go pedal to the metal, he goes right through the floorboard. Consider:

Horschel isn’t just lean, at 7 percent body fat; he’s seriously athletic—and crazy competitive. Randy Myers, one of his two trainers, recalls someone suggesting that the swivel-hipped Rory McIlroy would make a fine sprinter. Upon hearing this, Horschel began talking up a possible race with the World No. 1, woofing that he could run a sub-4.8 40-yard dash.

Horschel didn’t just cliff-dive during the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua Resort in January; he also careened down the vertigo-inducing zip lines—and insisted his low-key caddie, Micah Fugitt, race him to the bottom.

Horschel isn’t merely clothes conscious; he sets aside a special pair of pants for major-championship Sundays, infamously busting out his octopus-print trousers at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion.

On paper, this can all sound, well, a bit much. In reality, it’s just good old-fashioned, grab-life-by-the-golf-balls gusto.

“A lot of guys grow up wanting to play on the PGA Tour,” says friend and fellow Tour pro Matt Every, who was a senior at the University of Florida when Horschel arrived as a freshman. “But he really wants to be where he’s at now. He’s wanted to be Mr. PGA Tour his whole life, and he’s there, and he loves it—and he’s a good guy for the spot.”

The job includes not just say-cheese glamour but the daily grind, too. At the Humana, as the sun settled behind the knife-edged mountains and the temperature plunged, Horschel stood on the near-empty driving range with his caddie, Fugitt, and his coach, Todd Anderson, working away. Horschel had shot 65, and he’d just secured those trophies and that life-changing money. Yet there was more to do. He hasn’t won the Masters. He hasn’t won a major. He’s only 28.

“He’s got more energy than my two-year-old,” Every says. “Billy talks in his sleep. He never stops talking. After he won [the 2014 BMW Championship] in Denver, Jim Furyk and I were waiting for him at the airport because we were all going back to Jacksonville together. He was doing his press conference, and it was taking a while, and we were joking that Billy was like, ‘Are you sure that’s all the questions you guys want to ask?'”

“I don’t think he sleeps that much,” adds trainer Myers. “And I don’t think he has a complacent bone in his body.”

The three Horschel boys—Chris, Billy, and Brian—grew up in tiny Grant-Valkaria, on Florida’s mid-Atlantic coast, about 90 minutes southeast of Orlando. They were known mostly for their baseball prowess. No-nonsense dad Bill, who still drives an old Ford pickup, stressed that if the brothers wanted to be great, they had to go out and get it. Middle son Billy took note. On the verge of ninth grade he gave up baseball for golf, and in high school he began showing something special.

“We’d be 125 yards away, and he’d say, ‘Pick a spot on that green and I’ll hit it,'” Chris, 41, recalls. “I’d be happy to hit the green, but I’d play along and pick a spot, and Billy would hit it to within five feet.”

Money to travel was tight, so Horschel played regional tournaments in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, rarely competing in far-flung elite junior or amateur events. “He didn’t play in big national tournaments because our parents were financially strapped,” says Chris, the director of sports medicine at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

According to Horschel’s first coach, Alex Romanoff at the Habitat Golf Course in Brevard County, Fla., four Division I golf coaches told Bill Horschel that Billy wasn’t Division I material. So it could have been damaging when Horschel shot 84 at the 2004 U.S. Junior at San Francisco’s Olympic Club in front of Buddy Alexander, the golf coach at the University of Florida, Billy’s first choice for college. Luckily, Alexander liked how Billy carried himself, and that “the ball came out of the cannon the same way every time.” With the coach eventually down to one scholarship left to give, Alexander made what he says was “a gut call” that paid instant dividends.

As a freshman in 2006, Horschel gravitated to the squad’s senior leaders, including Every, and tried to soak up as much as he could. He became a first-team All-American as a freshman and SEC Player of the Year as a sophomore, the latter feat repeated as a senior.

I’m a quick learner,” Horschel says.

After his freshman year, Horschel, then 19, qualified for the 2006 U.S. Open (missing the cut), and shot a tournament- and USGA-record 60 at that year’s U.S. Amateur. The next summer he starred for the winning U.S. team in the Walker Cup. But after he turned pro in 2009 and got through Q-School on his first try, things didn’t go as planned in his rookie year on the PGA Tour.

A wrist injury cost Horschel the 2010 season, and he began pressing in 2011. That October, he threw an on-course fit at the McGladrey Classic at Georgia’s Sea Island Resort, chucking clubs and cursing. This drew a harsh rebuke from his coach, Anderson, who’s also Sea Island’s director of instruction.

“He told me, ‘You’re a professional now—act like one,'” Horschel says. “I realized he was right, it was bad, and I needed to do better.”

Horschel wanted to win too much. He had to, in his words, “control the fire.” Working with sports psychologist Fran Pirozzolo, he began finding ways to chill out, including meditation.

“As much progress as he’s made with his game,” Anderson says, “he’s made even more from the standpoint of being a good guy. I hear so many comments. He just did a two-day shoot for [sponsor] Polo at Sea Island, and it never got above 40 degrees, and he’s out there in shirtsleeves and never complained.”

His newfound calm on the course didn’t yield immediate results. After a mediocre 2012, Horschel cruised through Q-School, finishing T4, a sign of things to come. In addition to winning in New Orleans in 2013, he tied for fourth at the U.S. Open at Merion. The octopus pants stole the show on Sunday, but Horschel had done something even more outrageous and far more significant Friday, when he hit all 18 greens in regulation.

“I knew then that at some point, he’s going to win a major,” says caddie Fugitt.

“He’s got a major-type game,” Anderson adds. “Tee-to-green, he’s already there. All we’ve got to do is get the short game up to that level.”

The stats back up that assessment. In 2014, Horschel ranked third in ball striking but 144th in scrambling, 137th in sand saves and 57th in total putting. In his win at the Tour Championship in September, Horschel hit 57 of 72 greens (79 percent), six more than anyone else. When he putts well, as he did for those three playoff weeks in 2014, he’s lethal.

“I was prepared mentally last year in the majors,” Horschel says, “but was my game ready? I don’t know, but I think this year is going to be different. My short game is better, my wedge game is getting there. I’ve seen some really good stuff early in the season.”

Horschel is practiced in the art of self-analysis. With the trophy on the line at the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston last fall, he woefully mis-hit a 6-iron on No. 18 and watched his ball land in the hazard. Horschel didn’t repress that failure. He scrutinized it. He and Anderson spoke at length about the shot. Only then did he move on—and in subsequent weeks icily closed out the BMW and the Tour Championship. The golf world was clucking about what a great Ryder Cup player he might have been at Gleneagles, had his heroics come sooner.

“Horschel, damn you,” texted Tom Watson, whose U.S. captain’s picks came right on the heels of the TPC Boston gaffe. “You are a day late, but not a dollar short.”

In the wake of his FedEx windfall, Horschel tipped the locker room attendants at Tour Championship host East Lake $10,000. Soon after, he wired $1 million into the account of Fugitt, a 41-year-old former pawnbroker, construction worker and club caddie who had been dipping into his retirement fund before he hooked up with Horschel.

“I was speechless,” Fugitt says. “I called my wife, Teresa. She started crying, and I don’t think she stopped for about a week. Billy had told me after he won Zurich [in 2013], ‘If I ever win the FedExCup, I’m going to pay you a million dollars.’ I was, like, ‘Yeah, okay.’ [Laughs] He was true to his word. It’s crazy.”

Thanks to his employer’s generous bonus, Fugitt and Teresa, who live in Waco, Texas, have moved into a bigger house with their two young children, who have been set up with a college fund.

Then Billy reached out again. He was planning a November father-son trip to Ping headquarters in Phoenix. This, he said, would mean bringing not only his dad, Bill, but his caddie and his caddie’s father, all to be fitted for new clubs.

“My dad loves golf,” Fugitt says.

While in Phoenix, Horschel also bought lunch for 900 Ping employees.

“We had a blast,” Horschel says. “It worked out that I could buy everyone lunch just to tell them how much I appreciate everything they do. We had Jersey Mike’s subs all made up and brought over to Ping. It was a great day.”

Why just say thanks when you can show it? At the start of this year, Horschel commenced an endorsement contract with Lexus. The deal came with four cars, three of which he gave away—to his mom, his mother-in-law, and his wife, Brittany. Forget the Golf Channel: Horschel’s moves come straight out of The Oprah Winfrey Show. (“You get a car! And you get a car! Everybody gets a car!”)

Two days after his FedExCup win, Horschel received the ultimate gift when Brittany delivered their daughter, Skylar. The Horschels bought a new house in Ponte Vedra Beach that they’re remodeling. It’s bigger, to fit more family members when they come to visit at Christmas. He pursues other off-course interests, including American history, with typical vigor—a huge sports fan, Horschel chartered a plane and filled it with friends to go watch his beloved Florida Gators play football at Alabama last fall.

Still, a career year doesn’t a career make. Horschel has yet to play in a Ryder Cup or win a major. The Masters? This will be his second start at Augusta National, where he finished 37th last year.

“I wasn’t intimidated at all,” Horschel says. “A golf course is a golf course, a fairway is a fairway, a green is a green, a hole is a hole. It’s got some cool history with Bobby Jones and all, but nothing I felt in awe of. I think this year I’ll feel a little more comfortable.”

Can he win? It’s a steep learning curve, but he seems to like his chances. As the man says, he’s a fast learner.

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