Another stress reliever was a new left-hand-low putting stroke he committed to in 2012. This renewed his confidence on the green after years of inconsistency. The pieces were falling into place, but coming into this year Horschel was still considered an extravagantly talented underachiever who was wasting some of the Tour's best ballstriking. (In 2012 he was 11th in greens in regulation and 16th in total driving but 148th in money.) Says Horschel's friend and mentor Chris DiMarco, "Billy has the best swing on Tour. He just had to learn to get out of his own way."
Horschel rolls his eyes at that last bit. "I kept hearing people say, Once you learn to get out of your own way, that's when you're really going to take off. I was joking with Zach Johnson. I said, 'Hey Zach, I got a question for you: When someone says you need to get out of your own way, what does that mean?' People always say it, but if they have the answer, I wish they would tell me because I have no clue."
He began to figure it out this year at the Humana Challenge in Palm Springs. In contention on Sunday, Horschel was getting run over in what is always a birdie-a-thon after playing the front in even par. "Patience has never been my strength," he says with a laugh, "but at the turn I told my caddie, 'We've hit a lot of good shots and nothing's gone our way. Let's just keep doing what we're doing and see what happens on the back side.' I played it in five under and that round kinda jump-started everything."
By the spring he was officially on fire. Horschel tied for second at the Houston Open, and after sleeping on the 54-hole lead, tied for third the next week in San Antonio. He spent the following week stewing, watching his friends play the Masters on TV. Then he went to Hilton Head and threw himself into the mix yet again. Sixth heading into the final round, Horschel shot 74 and fell to ninth. "I was so pissed off when I walked off the golf course," he says. "But that night I thought back to the events I won in college. I remembered at the SEC Championships one of my teammates said, 'I knew you were going to win this week because you seemed more at ease, like you knew you were going to play well. You just went about your business.' Before I left for [the next tournament in] New Orleans I had this strong feeling that if I stayed calm and relaxed, I was going to win. And when I got there I wasn't anxious or jacked up. Whatever happened, happened. If I made a bogey, no big deal." In fact, he didn't make a single one on Saturday, and six consecutive birdies in the middle of the final round pushed him to the precipice of a breakthrough victory. On the 72nd hole he faced a 27-footer for birdie to lock up the win. A lifetime of hard-earned knowledge was distilled into one pressure-packed moment. Horschel gutted the putt, touching off an unforgettable fist-pumping, foot-stomping celebration. By the time he had stopped whooping at the top of his lungs, Adam Scott's cries of "C'mon Aussie" had been usurped as the year's best bit of on-course revelry.
Says DiMarco, "It was awesome to see that kind of passion. That's what this game needs. That one moment told you everything you need to know about Billy."
His education actually began at his grandmother's house, where he and his younger brother, Brian, loved to look through a tattered scrapbook of his father's athletic career.
Bill was a high school football and track star who played defensive end at Carson-Newman College. Billy says, "He was my first idol. I wanted to be like him." The elder Horschel is a man's man, a construction worker who played high-level rugby deep into his 40s. "My dad is a hard-ass," Billy says, with hints of both affection and wariness.
Billy and Brian, separated by 14 months, played sports year round, and their father often coached their teams. "We worked harder than all the other kids," says Billy. "If we didn't have team practice, my dad had us out there running laps, doing push-ups and sit-ups. It was intense. But he told us flat out, 'Hey, if you want to be really good, this is what it takes, this is what I expect from you guys. If you want it, I'll push you to be the best you can be. If you don't want it, if you just want to relax and goof around, that's fine too. Just let me know and I'll stop.' We wanted to be good at everything we did."
Brian was a quarterback and a centerfielder, and when he wasn't on the same teams as Billy, they competed ferociously, whether it was basketball in the driveway or casual games of tennis or long-drive contests or sprints across the family's rural homestead. "We loved each other, but we went at it hard," Brian says. "There were definitely a few times my dad had to step between us." Brian tore up his shoulder pitching at Central Florida Community College; he's now apprenticing as an electrician and hoping to play the Florida mini-tours this winter.
When Billy was a senior in high school, another important person came into his life. At a tournament at Doral, he spied a girl with tan legs and a long blond ponytail on the putting green. Brittany Nelson was a top recruit already on her way to Florida. Horschel was too shy to talk to her that day, but once they arrived in Gainesville, a romance bloomed. They married in 2010. By then Brittany's competitive career had been ended by three wrist surgeries, but she still carries herself like an athlete. At this year's Players she had her hubby on the bag for the annual wives' tournament. When Billy tried to pull a club for her, Brittany shushed him by saying, "I got this, babe." She also takes a little credit for Horschel's new dedication to improving on the greens. "He's never beaten me in a putting contest," she woofs.