He’d been trying so hard. He really had, whether you believe it or not. The anger, the temper tantrums, yeah, you could count on Billy Horschel to go viral once or twice a year for a slammed club or an outburst on the green, but it was nothing like it used to be. He’d been working with a sports psychologist for years. He’d been reining in those emotions and trying to control who he was so as not to upset sponsors or “disrespect the game.” But he was still Billy Horschel.
So then he pulled his second shot from the fairway right into the water at the Masters in April and violently chucked his club a few yards forward with a livid grimace on his face. Classic Horschel, right? The click-based media sites quickly went to work, focusing on Horschel again “losing his cool.”
“That’s where he said, ‘I’m tired of this,'” longtime swing coach Todd Anderson said.
Two weeks later, before the Zurich Classic in New Orleans, Horschel was asked about that famous temper, and he changed his tune. After years of saying he was working on it and apologizing for being who he was, he made some jokes, smiled and told the truth.
“It just runs way too hot inside me, and I can’t stand not being able to play to the level that I expect of myself on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “There are times that it boils over, and you know what, it happens. I’ve apologized many times for it and I’ll apologize in the future for it, too, but that’s me, and I just try to – I just hope people understand that not everyone is cut from the same cloth…
“That’s me, and that’s the way it’s always going to be. This is going to sound blunt. It’s going to sound bad, but if you don’t like it, I honestly don’t care anymore. I’ve cared enough over the last 13 years of my career to try and please everyone that watches me, and you know what, I can’t do it anymore. I’ve done everything I can. If you don’t like me for some reason, I don’t care anymore. ”
And that response was what his sports psychologist has been waiting to hear. Dr. Bhrett McCabe has worked with Horschel for years, and in reality he’s always been trying to let Horschel be who he is. “I think it’s pretty damn spectacular,” he said. He’s seen the decades of conventions about golf and looked on in confusion. You’ve gotta be calm. “Why? Tiger Woods isn’t calm. ” You’ve gotta have a clear mind. “Really? It’s some of the most complicated calculations ever. ”
“Give me a break,” McCabe said. “His superpower is his competitiveness.”
This was Billy Horschel earlier in today’s round. pic.twitter.com/YOEYxYLiH8
– Andy Johnson 🍳 (@AndyTFE) April 11, 2021
But Horschel is in the process of trying to get over a hump in his career. He’s the No. 17 ranked golfer in the world but hasn’t finished top 20 in a major since early 2016. He’s never competed for his country as a professional. When he won the 2014 Tour Championship, he was considered one of the best young players on tour. Eight years later – and with the US Open in two weeks – he’s trying to overcome being just another good golfer stuck in the middle. The key may be somewhere inside this journey of learning to channel his emotions.
Golf is a sport with frustration woven into its fabric. It’s practically in the brochure for any new golfer, that it’s going to be really hard and it’ll take a few years and even if you start getting good you’re likely going to regress back to awful every few weeks and lord knows if you ‘ll ever get it back. It’s the one sport where you’re never really finished. You’re just teetering on some arbitrary personal standard of OK and hoping you can maintain it for longer than the last time. So who hasn’t thrown a club? Who hasn’t cursed up a storm because you were hitting it so well on the range only to then chunk it all day in front of your future father-in-law?
It’s why McCabe laughs and tells us what this story is really going to be about. “Billy is us.” He’s all of us. He’s a top-20 golfer in the world who lives and dies with every shot like a regular club. Following Horschel for a round is hearing him essentially narrate each decision and mistake and repeating “Come on, Billy” to himself. In a time of professional sports feeling corporate and calculated, Horschel – and many others – show you they’re actually human.
McCabe won a College World Series as a pitcher at LSU, and has since transitioned into a career that counts everyone from Jon Rahm to Alabama football to the 10-handicap at your local club as a client. He calls golf a marathon filled with a lot of little sprints, and he thinks the best comparison from a game theory point of view is poker. You’re not always going to get good cards, and as much as everyone wants to think they’re in control of every single shot, it is a given you will hit bad ones. He looks at Horschel and sees this hyper-competitive, emotional guy who is at his best when using that intensity to propel himself toward better golf. But how does one balance channeling their extreme emotions and not wanting to lose control?
“Well, sometimes people who work in woodworking lose a finger,” he said.
Anderson, now Director of Instruction at the PGA Tour’s Performance Center at TPC Sawgrass, has worked with Horschel for 14 years. He jokes he’s been with him through the entire “maturation process” of cycling from out of control to reining it in to giving up on making others happy.
“When he was younger, I don’t want to say he acted childish…,” he said before giving examples of him acting childish. He slammed clubs and once tossed one and hit a caddy. He’s cursed out heckling fans and ranted about playing conditions at the US Open. He used to have these specially made putters from Ping and when he’d miss putts he’d bang the putter against his shoe (and a couple of times hit his ankle quite hard). Eventually he hit it so often the putters bent, and Ping had to tell him to stop because they didn’t have any left.
It came to a head at the 2011 McGladrey Classic at Sea Island, which at the time was where Anderson worked as director of instruction. Horschel went into Sunday in the final group as a 24-year-old going for his first PGA Tour win, only to shoot a disastrous 75 and finish tied for 20th place. He handled it, well, like Billy Horschel would be expected to handle it. He threw balls into the marsh and threw his hat up in the air. His actions surpassed the acceptable range of emotion. Anderson brought him into his office.
“I sat him down in a chair and said,‘ Listen, you have sponsors that are paying a lot of money for you to represent them. That behavior out there is not what they want, and it’s not what you want and it’s not what I want. Especially at my home club and my home tour event. ‘”
Horschel broke down and kept apologizing over and over again. Years later, Horschel still brings this day up. And for the next decade, he tried. He really tried. Anderson said he thinks Horschel has been substantially better the last five or six years. He said the frustrating misconception is that emotion and golf don’t go together. “They want you to be this emotionless person out there going through the motions,” he said, while in other sports like basketball and football that type of intensity is applauded. Both McCabe and Anderson said Horschel doesn’t do anything worse than most golfers on tour, but once he got a reputation for it he became the one most often highlighted and caught on camera.
“If you know Billy, he’s a pleaser,” Anderson continued. “I think he’s really put an effort the last 10 years to really try to handle things the right way. Unfortunately, there are times when the competition and the excitement of the game can get the best of you. ”
That’s also the part that upsets those close to Horschel. That people don’t really know who he is and think he’s a bad guy or doesn’t respect the game because he slams a golf club. They point out the constant and extreme work he does with the American Junior Golf Association and the Advocates Professional Golf Tour championing diversity. They tell stories of him mentoring young players or McCabe showing up before the PGA Championship last month to see Horschel helping a kid with his swing instead of working on his own game. He’ll often sit in a chair while Anderson does youth lessons at Sawgrass and watch and give advice. “The guy does so many people don’t know about,” McCabe said. “He’s an amazing dad. He’s an amazing husband. ”
Horschel often describes himself as a “blue-collar player.” He’s the son of a construction worker and not a “country club kid.” He didn’t have opportunities to fly across the country for junior golf events. He didn’t receive college scholarship offers only to walk on at Florida and became a four-time All-American. “He knows how difficult it is to get where he is now,” Anderson said, “and he wanted to help other kids along the way and give opportunities he didn’t have.”
So, yeah, when you make it this far through grinding and constant intensity, you’re not simply going to turn it off once you make it. That’s not how humans work. That’s now how Horschel got here. Turning it off would be limiting what made him a six-time PGA Tour winner.
The key is what McCabe calls primary and secondary emotions. The primary emotion is hitting the bad shot and being frustrated. “I would hope as a competitor it pisses you off,” he said. The secondary emotion is the problem. That’s feeling something like shame about the primary emotion or that you’re not a good golfer because you hit the bad shot. Horschel lets the world see that primary emotion, but he doesn’t let it carry over. Think of it as a natural release instead of an unhealthy bottling.
“So somebody like Billy who gets upset, it’s over within seconds,” McCabe continued.
Success comes from the next shot. Anderson said Horschel is good at releasing the anger and then hitting his next shot well (Horschel has finished top 20 in the world in the bounce back after bogeys category multiple times). Horschel once birdied the 12th hole at Augusta after throwing his club on No. 11.
But if Horschel is us, like McCabe says, what can we take from it? Horschel is angry because he’s one of the best in the world, and when he misses he knows there’s a specific thing he should fix immediately to do better. With the average golfer, McCabe says the root issues from our expectations being way too high. We base our standards of our best day ever instead of our average. There needs to be a fundamental understanding that bad shots are coming, and all you can control is how you handle it. You can’t play worried. It’s about improving your B- each day, not your A +. McCabe said every player needs an “anchor” to pull you back to normal when emotions get high. Tiger Woods used his glove, always pulling on it after a bad shot to bring himself back down. McCabe also thinks it’s important to verbalize a shot before hitting it, to make your intention clear and hit the ball with intention.
“What we can learn from him is there are days when we get flustered,” McCabe said. “The game is hard. The game is like going to a blackjack table. Sometimes you get the good cards. Sometimes you don’t. ”
And the other part of this story is that Horschel’s journey is ongoing. He spent some time out of control and a few years trying to keep it down and now he’s done apologizing for who he is. He’s still figuring out, like all of us, how to find the proper balance between the best and worst parts of ourselves, like a golf swing attempting to fix a slice only to create a new problem in the process.
Horschel is an emotional golfer. That’s who he is, and he’s done apologizing for it.
(Top photo: Andrew Wethers / USA Today)