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Three months ago Billy Horschel was an anonymous Tour pro worried about having to go back to Q School for a fourth time. Now he's a popular U.S. Open dark horse. Horschel, 26, might seem like an overnight sensation, but his golfing education has been a lifetime in the making. It began in Grant, Fla., when his father, Bill, refused to take the pint-sized Billy to a golf course until the kid proved he could hit a ball over their house. "It took a couple of busted windows, but he finally did it," says the older man.
As an early teen Billy was a standout baseball player—a rangy shortstop who hit for a high average and a stud hurler who once pitched nine innings (including two extra frames) and struck out 15 in a 1--0 victory. It wasn't until he fractured the growth plate in his right elbow throwing an ill-fated curveball that he came to concentrate full time on golf.
Coming out of Bayside High School in Palm Bay, Fla., Horschel was lightly recruited, but near the tail end of his senior year he caught wind that Florida was holding on to a scholarship that paid $400 a semester. Gators coach Buddy Alexander was trying to decide between Horschel and a more polished player with a better swing. Both were competing in the state championship, and Alexander came to watch. Horschel finished fifth and punched his ticket to Gainesville, where he applied the same do-or-die ethos to earning a spot in the lineup on a powerhouse squad with four seniors and a handful of blue-chip underclassmen.
Before intrasquad qualifying for the first tournament, Horschel gave himself a pep talk: "My mind-set was, I'm on one of best teams in the country, playing with the best players in the country. If I can beat them in qualifying, I can beat all the other guys in actual tournaments." He qualified for the Gators' first tournament and finished 10th at a big-time course, Inverness. Horschel never came out of the lineup and became an up-by-the-bootstraps first-team All-America as a freshman. (He would earn All-America honors the next three years too.) "It goes back to that state tournament—Billy just had something special," says Alexander. "He's one of those guys who wants the ball at the end of the game."
Following his freshman year, Horschel played his way into the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. After starting triple, bogey, bogey, he could have panicked and shot a million, but instead he brawled with the course for 15 straight pars. He would miss the cut by three strokes, but that week expanded his notion of his own potential. "That's when I realized I could do this thing as a professional," he says. "Up until then, that dream had seemed really far away."
Horschel was a key figure at the 2007 Walker Cup (3-1-0), but in the ensuing years many of his fellow competitors had become stars, including Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler. (Webb Simpson was on the verge.) Horschel turned pro in 2009 but lost all the next year to left-wrist surgery. When he returned to the Tour in '11, "I had this feeling like I had fallen behind," he says. "I was pressing really hard. I wanted it too much."
Horschel is well known among his peers as a Type A personality with a motormouth. "He's feisty," says Scott Brown. Adds Jonas Blixt, who played at rival Florida State and remembers Horschel from college, "He talks a lot of crap."
The dark side of this competitive spirit is Horschel's tendency to come unhinged on the golf course. Near the end of his disappointing 2011 campaign he was in contention at The McGladrey Classic at Sea Island Resort, the home course of his swing instructor, Todd Anderson. Horschel blew up on Sunday and turned into such a club-throwing, profanity-spewing brat he earned a fine from the Tour and a dressing-down from the usually mild-mannered Anderson.
"I told him that the way he acted was unacceptable. If you're going to handle tournament pressure, you simply can't lose control like that," says Anderson. "Some guys would have been like, Whatever. But Billy's a great kid with a good heart. To his credit, he accepted the criticism and resolved to make some changes."
Last year Horschel made good on the promise and started working with Fran Pirozzolo, a sports psychologist with a Ph.D. in neuropsychology. Horschel began practicing mindful meditation and breathing exercises. "It's second nature now," he says. "When my body is tense, I go back to the meditation deal. When I'm upset, I try to breathe more, I try to picture where I'm tight and imagine those muscles loosening up. I imagine this light coming over me, moving along my shoulders, down into my arms and hands, and it allows me to loosen up and feel free."