By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
LA JOLLA, Calif. -- At least the introductions have already been made.
Billy Horschel, who had just graduated from the University of Florida, made it a point to go up and thank Tiger Woods that day after the man who was then the world's No. 1 player had given him a sponsor's exemption to play in the AT&T National.
"He said I know you've had a pretty good college career and you've done pretty well," Horschel recalled. "Just keep doing what you're doing. You'll be fine, and you'll be out here in no time. So I thought that was something cool at the time."
Saturday will be even cooler. Although the two have talked on several occasions since, Horschel will play with Woods for the first time in the third round of the Farmers Insurance Open -- in the day's final pairing, no less.
Woods owns the lead at 11 under while Horschel is second, trailing by two after a solid 69 on the South Course that will host the final two rounds. Also in the final pairing is Casey Wittenberg, who has played with Woods three times, all in majors, and is among six players tied for third at 8 under.
Horschel knows the crowd following the final threesome will be huge. He's also heard that playing with Woods is easier than playing in front or behind him due to the way the fans scurry ahead to get a better view. He isn't worried one way or the other.
"It's nothing that I haven't dealt with before," Horschel said. "I've played the Walker Cup in 2007 over in Northern Ireland at Royal County Down and there was a guy I competed against three times called Rory McIlroy. So there may have been 10, 12,000 people following us, and only a couple thousand following the rest of the group. So I've dealt with crowds. ...
"He's one of the many golfers I've looked up to when I was a young kid, so I get to play with him. It's going to be nice."
The 28-year-old has been extremely steady over the first two rounds. Horschel ranks first in greens in regulation, hitting all but four, and second in fairways, finding 22 of 28. Granted, he took 31 putts on Friday but finished strong with three birdies over his last five holes.
The round of 69 was Horschel's 10 sub-par round in as many attempts this season. He had played 24 events combined on the PGA TOUR and Web.com Tour last year, including q-school where he tied for fourth to get his card back. A week spent snowboarding -- "I'm sort of addicted," Horschel said with a smile -- then the holidays put him in a refreshed frame of mind.
Once Horschel did start practicing again several days before New Year's, he and his instructor, Todd Anderson, who also works with last year's Farmers Insurance Open champion, Brandt Snedeker, decided their primary area of emphasis would be on putting. He spent four hours on the practice green on Wednesday and it appears to be paying off.
"We knew all along my putting was somewhere where I could improve greatly," Horschel said. "And there were just a couple of fundamentals and mechanical things that we worked on, and it's been something I've been really focusing on, spending more time on the putting green than on the driving range."
Horschel has also made it a point to stay focused on himself. He has quit reading golf magazines because the words tend to stay with him, and he uses Twitter sparingly. He tries not to look at leaderboards, too, so he can stay in the moment on the course.
"I need to be a little bit more selfish out here," Horschel said. "Not always talk a lot to everybody I see. I can talk your ear off for days and days. So whenever I see somebody, not going over there and talking 20 minutes while they're practicing and I'm not. So it's more or less just me focusing on what I need to do and taking care of my business and just go about it that way."
As he talked, Horschel's phone was vibrating as yet another text arrived. His task will more difficult on Friday night but the rewards could be great come Sunday.