Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 14, 2014

For Billy Horschel Redemption Is Both Swift And Certain

When we last left Billy Horschel, the fourth year PGA Tour pro was standing in the middle of the 18th fairway at TPC Boston on Labor Day, having just hit one of the worst golf shots of his short career. Playing in the final group at the Deutsche Bank Championship, Horschel reached the tournament’s ultimate hole one shot behind leader Chris Kirk. After splitting the fairway of the dogleg par-5, he had 210 yards to the flag. An iron to the green would leave Horschel an eagle putt for victory, with a two putt birdie ensuring him of a playoff with Kirk. Instead he hit the shot woefully fat, the ball never coming near the green before it disappeared into a large waste area fronting the putting surface. The resulting bogey left the 27-year old Horschel in a three-way tie for second behind the victorious Kirk.

Like watching any good train wreck, it was impossible at the time to focus on anything other than Horschel’s dramatic failure under pressure; all the more so because after he and equally unknown playing partner Russell Henley spent most of their day playing in front of small galleries, the shot into the weeds came in front of thousands of fans lining TPC Boston’s final hole. So what went largely unnoticed less than two weeks ago was that Horschel had played 72 holes well enough to tie for second. Also ignored was his payday of more than half a million dollars, a solid return for a golfer whose career earnings prior to the Deutsche Bank totaled about $6 million, more than half of that won in 2013 when he triumphed at the Zurich Classic and had seven other top ten finishes. Finally, lost in the 18th hole collapse was Horschel’s move up to 20th in the FedEx Cup standings.

Every athlete’s career has moments both high and low. Failure, inevitable in any sport, can sometimes haunt a player and in extreme cases undo a promising career. But it can also fuel an athlete’s drive and determination. Failure can sometimes be a painful but necessary precursor to success. Golf fans have seen that story unfold a time or two before.

At the 2011 Masters then 21-year old Rory McIlroy led the field by 4 shots starting the final trip around Augusta National. But McIlroy needed 80 strokes to complete that final eighteen, finishing in a tie for 15th. Two months later he won the year’s next major, the U.S. Open, by 8 shots. Three years later McIlroy has four career majors and is the number one ranked golfer in the world.

At the 2012 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, Kyle Stanley stood on the 18th tee with a 3 shot lead over Brandt Snedeker. What followed was a nightmarish collapse, a triple-bogey 8 on the final hole that dropped him into a tie and a sudden death playoff that Snedeker won on the second extra hole. But just one week later Stanley came roaring back from 8 off the pace to win in Phoenix.

So it turned out that the final three weeks of this year’s PGA Tour schedule became the story of Billy Horschel’s rise from the ashes, a climb that took him from that achingly lonely moment in front of thousands south of Boston to back-to-back victories in the Tour’s final two playoff events and the biggest prize of all, the FedEx Cup.

From Boston the Tour headed west to Cherry Hills Country Club in Colorado for the third leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs, the BMW Championship. There Horschel opened with a 68 and just kept improving over the next two days, adding rounds of 66 and 63; all good enough for a 3 shot lead heading into the final round. This time there was no final round drama. Horschel birdied the short par-4 opening hole and played bounce back golf by following two bogeys on the front side with immediate birdies. He finished the day with 11 consecutive pars on his way to a two shot win over Bubba Watson. Victory at the BMW earned Horschel $1.44 million and a rise to 2nd on the point list.

That made Horschel one of the five golfers who controlled their own fate at the season-ending Tour Championship. While everyone in the field has a mathematical shot at winning the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus, the players ranked lower than 5th can only do so by winning the tournament and having those ranked above them finish sufficiently far down the leader board. By Sunday the Florida native was teeing off in the final group for the third tournament in a row, this time tied for the 54 hole lead with McIlroy. The world number one started to slide down the leader board when his tee shot at East Lake Golf Club’s par-3 6th hole found the water, leading to a double-bogey. But Horschel, who will rise to number fourteen in the rankings this week, played with a singular focus all day long. He was out of first place only for a matter of moments, when McIlroy, putting first, sunk a birdie on the 4th hole. Horschel promptly matched that with his own birdie putt, and soon stood alone at the top.

Always known as a solid ball striker, Horschel’s torrid streak has been marked by great putting. On East Lake’s slick greens he was repeatedly left with tap-ins after lengthy lag putts while other players sweated over four footers for par. Twice on the back nine, with Jim Furyk now his closest pursuer, Horschel faced a moment of truth with the putter in his hand.

At the 13th a big downhill swinger from some 50 feet ran 7 feet by the hole. He rolled in the par save, and at that point had played 170 holes since his last three putt. Then at the par-4 16th an errant drive into the trees left Horschel with no route to the green. After pitching back into the fairway his third shot spun back to a spot more than 30 feet from the cup. The par putt rolled steadily up the green, caught the right side of the cup and fell into the hole to preserve his lead. When Furyk bogeyed both the 17th and 18th, Horschel had his hands firmly on the week’s twin trophies, one for winning the Tour Championship and one for claiming the season-long race for the FedEx Cup. In three weeks of golf Billy Horschel finished with a second and two firsts, while earning just shy of $13.5 million.

One never knows how an athlete will respond to adversity; whether failure will be scarring or motivating. As the thousands lining TPC Boston’s 18th on Labor Day gasped and groaned, the natural assumption was that the season was ending badly for the lone golfer standing in the fairway. What no one knew at the time was that Billy Horschel was just getting started. What we do know now is that he’s unlikely to be playing in front of small galleries for quite some time to come.

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