Billy Horschel hell-bent on contending at Merion in his first major as a Tour player

Billy Horschel fell in love with Merion while competing in the 2005 U.S. Amateur.
Andrew Hancock/SI

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."

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.

A gym rat whose biceps strain the sleeves of his slim-fit polos, Horschel is always looking for a new challenge. Two years ago Brittany, an ace skier, got him on the slopes. He chose to snowboard and can already shred a mountain. "Billy's one of those irritating guys who picks up things really fast," she sighs.

Together they are learning to navigate the new demands of his upwardly mobile career. The week of the Players they moved into a new house two miles from Sawgrass. (Always careful with his money, Horschel describes the place as "nice and affordable.") Horschel was distracted most of the week getting settled in the house, entertaining family and friends, and obliging every media request. When the tournament began he was once again trying too hard, and he missed his first cut in 23 starts.

"I took a lot from that week," he says now. "I'm learning how to say no. And now I have a better understanding that when I go to these big events, it's easy to get anxious and excited. I just need to slow down and stick to my routines and keep doing what I've been doing."

Horschel hopes to apply these lessons at Merion, which he fell in love with while competing in the 2005 U.S. Amateur. It's a big ask for him to contend in his first major championship as a pro, but Horschel says, "I'm not going there for the experience. I'm going there to win. I'm playing well, and I think the golf course is perfect for me."

If Horschel thinks he's ready, it would be wise to believe him—after all these years the guy has become a quick study.