This is his life now
How things have changed (and stayed the same) this year for Billy Horschel
August 24, 2015
By D.J. Piehowski , PGATOUR.COM
Finally, Billy Horschel can get some sleep. It’s not much, but it’s something.
The window shade of our private charter jet is twisted and bent out of shape as if it was slammed by someone exhausted by the sunlight, but it will do the trick. When he takes off his white PING G30 hat for the final time today, his normally impeccable hair, parted down the left side and smoothed across to the right like a throwback movie star, is also a mess. It’s been a long day, man.
We’re somewhere over North Carolina, making the second leg of a round trip journey from Greensboro to Atlanta and fresh off a half-day media blitz to celebrate Horschel’s 2014 win at the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola. The sleep is well deserved for the defending FedExCup champion. In the past 24 hours, Horschel has played the final round of a major and made the rarely traveled journey from Sheboygan to Greensboro to Atlanta. He’s held an alligator and caught a touchdown pass and hosted College GameDay (sort of). He’s beaten Dominque Wilkins in basketball (for real) and he’s taken photos with two-thirds of Atlanta residents. He’s done all of it with the seemingly endless energy you see on the course.
But when his head hits the tan leather seat of the week's final plane, he’s out.
I don’t know what type of jet we’re on, but Billy does. Of course he does. This is his life now. And he loves it.
Let’s start with the money. It’s where everyone else starts these days. Every reporter knows to follow the money.
Throughout our day together, and for the 338 days prior to it, Horschel is asked variations of the same question.
“What did you spend it on?”
“Did you splurge on anything?"
“What’s one item you made sure to get?"
I assume a lot changes when a 27-year-old earns $13,477,333.33 in three weeks. At least one thing stayed the same for Horschel; he will talk at length, offering opinions and analysis, about almost any subject you bring up, but he has never liked to discuss money. His 2014 season, specifically his three weeks of near-perfect golf surely didn’t make it any easier. He’ll tell you that his late-season windfall made it easier to pay cash for the house he and his wife Brittany were building in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. He’ll tell you that he took care of his parents and his in-laws, but anything beyond that is off-limits. It’s a rare bit of requested privacy for one of the TOUR’s most open and honest players.
"No one needs to know what I do with my money,” said Horschel, who repeats time and again that the money is simply security. He’s said in the past that he has no interest in playing professional golf into his fifties. The money gives him even more of a safety net to call it quits on his terms. Thoughts of early retirement are not something he grew up expecting. His parents “worked their butts off to make ends meet” for the family in Grant, Florida.
"Some people out there come into money like this and go shout ‘look at what I bought.’ And they get 5,000 people on Twitter hammering them because they look like a self-absorbed prick who does whatever they want. Obviously that’s not always the case. They have worked hard and that’s what they’ve rewarded themselves with. Some people don’t understand that."
Of course, that doesn’t stop people from asking. He even gets questions when he goes to the mailbox. As soon as he made par at East Lake’s 18th hole last September, he became a much more savvy investor, at least in the eyes of the companies that started contacting him.
“I think there were about 30 companies that sent letters and emails and anything else asking me to invest with them,” he said with a laugh. “I ripped them all up and threw them away."
For everything he kept private, there was one fantastic financial detail that came out last year, and it dates back to a conversation Horschel had with his caddie, Micah Fugitt two years ago. Before the Playoffs started in 2013, a year before he would win them, Horschel made a promise to Fugitt: In keeping with the traditional 10 percent caddie fee, Fugitt could expect $1 million if they were ever to win.
From there, the two had an unspoken agreement about bonus money. It didn’t come up over the next year. It didn’t come up when Horschel was in the final pairing with Rory McIlroy Sunday at the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola. It didn’t even come up when the final putt dropped.
"I just told my accountant to put another 1 million dollars in his account,” Horschel said. "That was it. He knew it as soon as we won. If I say I’m going to do something, I do something. That’s all."
For Fugitt, having the agreement was one thing. Seeing the money – real, tangible money - in his account was another.
"Shock, happiness, joy, you have such a wide range of emotions,” Fugitt told Golfweek. "He’s always been great about showing gratitude to people like that."
Gratitude. That's exactly the word Horschel has been looking for this year. The way to describe how he feels about the life-changing run that is responsible for days like today.
Horschel showed his gratitude to the PGA TOUR immediately last fall. After winning the final two events of the season and the FedExCup, Horschel was in high demand to play one-off events on other tours, and he could expect to collect plenty of appearance money along the way. Instead, he teed it up in Las Vegas and Malaysia and more, helping to support events that were part of the PGA TOUR's still new wrap-around season.
“I felt like the TOUR has done so many great things for the players in creating the FedExCup that it was my duty as FedExCup champion to support those events however I could,” he said. “And even the ones I didn’t play in by saying, listen, I’m not playing your event, but I’m also not going and playing any others. Without all the sponsorship, the FedExCup would never have happened and I never would have won it and been where I am."
Back in January of 2014, Billy Horschel woke up confused, unsure of what he’d just seen.
Before being snapped out of his REM cycle, Horschel remembers a strange, faint vision; a dream version of himself holding the silver, reflective FedExCup high above his head. Laugh if you want, but he knows what he saw. He filed the dream away in his memory and didn’t think about it for months.
That vision was far from Horschel’s mind a year ago. He was leaving The Barclays disappointed and out of sorts. He had just missed the cut at the season’s first Playoff event and dropped to No. 82 in the FedExCup rankings, meaning he’d have to play well at the Deutsche Bank Championship just to get into the top 70 and advance. He hadn’t had a top 10 since June. He wasn’t exactly looking like someone poised to make a run.
A few days later, he was listening to PING rep Matt Rollins talk about that week’s winner, Hunter Mahan.
"He said Hunter wasn’t really playing well and then all of a sudden he wins at The Barclays and now he has a chance to go have his best season ever,” Horschel said. "I thought about that a lot. He’s exactly right. It doesn’t matter what I’ve done the rest of the year. I just have to play really good golf these next few weeks and literally everything changes."
As you know, that’s what happened. I’ll try not to make any “dreams come true” jokes for the next several paragraphs.
Horschel played 71 impeccable holes of golf the next week at TPC Boston, putting himself in position for the second win of his career. Standing in the fairway at the reachable par-5 18th, however, Horschel chunked a 6-iron into the hazard and made bogey.
"I honestly had a feeling that I was going to hit a good shot and I was going to make the putt for eagle,” he said. “It was the worst swing I made all week."
Horschel says he gets two important qualities from his family and both came in handy that day. First, he says he has an ingrained opposition to moping or feeling sorry for himself. That comes from his parents.
“After that tournament I was totally good,” Horschel said. “A lot of people said a lot of negative things. A lot of people said a lot of positive things. I was just happy that I had finally played four good rounds and had a chance to win. I was mad for an hour and then it was over.
"You can’t just say poor me,” he said. “What’s the point of that? You have to just say ‘F--- it.' Do whatever you need to do move forward."
The second quality, if you haven’t guessed, is confidence. That comes from his uncles.
“By the time we were in the car in Boston, he was talking to (coach Todd Anderson) about how he was going to win next week,” said Sherry Whay, Horschel’s agent. Not only did that prediction come true, he did it again the next week. In his winner’s press conference after the BMW Championship, Horschel said that if he was a betting man, he would put money down on himself to win again.
During today’s media tour, Horschel is asked, in front of a group of local media and executives, to name the defining moments of his career. The question is an easy jumping-off point for Horschel to talk about the significance of his late-season successes. Instead, he starts listing some of his biggest disappointments.
“What I’m going to say is kind of weird,” he starts, “but I’d say the defining moments of my career are probably the final round of the 2011 McGladrey Classic, where I was in contention and didn’t handle myself well and lost. That and the shot I hit at the 72nd hole at Deutsche Bank last year. Those made me into the golfer I am."
He also includes his first win, the 2013 Zurich Classic of New Orleans and the first time he hit a golf ball over his house, but is quick to add that “you don’t learn as much as people think from success."
After all, he hit his next shot through his parents’ window.
It’s tough to remember now, but whether or not Horschel would even play the TOUR Championship was up for debate. It was a short debate, but still.
His wife Brittany was pregnant with the couple’s first child and the due date was rapidly approaching. He asked his wife what she wanted him to do. Should he keep playing, pushing for a life-changing victory and paycheck? Or should he leave, following the lead of players like Phil Mickelson, who has famously carried a beeper during play, ready to leave if his wife went into labor.
"Phil has about 500 million more dollars than I do,” Horschel said with a laugh. "My wife is understanding. She knew that money could go a long way to set up our family and my parents and her parents and anyone close to us. I asked what she wanted me to do, she told me to stay out there."
It turned out to be an unnecessary discussion. Skylar Lillian Horschel was born two days after Billy and the FedExCup arrived back in Ponte Vedra Beach.
His daughter has undoubtedly made the biggest impact on his life this past year, pushing him to be more patient and forcing him to try to find the balance between a life of travel and a life at home.
But outside of that, how, exactly, is life different for Billy Horschel a year later? Today is a good example.
He has a private jet waiting for him at Greensboro’s Piedmont Triad Airport. When he lands in Atlanta, he’s taken to the CNN Center for a live appearance, answering the first batch in a day full of similar questions. It’s here that he gets his first bit of downtime. Horschel is happy to oblige any request during the media day, but his antsy, buzzing personality isn’t ideal for sitting still. He hates dead air as much as a station manager at a radio station. It’s a wonder that he’s never in his life had a cup of coffee, until you think about the fact that he’s probably never needed one.
From there it’s off to the Georgia Aquarium, where he holds a baby alligator and is fascinated by the feeding of the aquarium’s albino gators. The photo ops are obvious; we’re talking about the Florida graduate that Gator Chomped on the 18th green last fall, deep in the heart of Georgia. Shortly after arriving, Horschel is standing near the tank containing the aquarium’s beluga whales. When he arrives, the tank’s inhabitants swim directly to him and linger near the glass, challenging him to some sort of sociable staring contest.
“Mammals seem to like me, by in large,” he jokes, tapping lightly at their noses on the glass. “I don’t know about all humans, but the other mammals seem to."
In golf, honesty often comes with controversy, which Horschel has found, most recently at the U.S. Open, where he was among the most outspoken players on the conditions of the greens at Chambers Bay. Since then, he’s gotten constant digital and audible jabs from fans around the country.
"I pick my situations where I need to speak my mind and that was one,” Horschel said. "I felt like us, the players, were being thrown under the bus when people would say the greens were good. And they weren’t.
"All I will say is that we took a plane ride from the U.S. Open to Travelers and there were quite a lot of players and caddies on that plane that thanked me for it."
Horschel’s stock has gone up in the world of golf over the past year. He’s gone from a one-time winner to a three-time winner and he’s heard “2014 FedExCup Champion” before his name on a number of tee boxes. He’s often asked if this gives his comments more weight when he speaks his mind on the issue of the day.
"The people that know me know that I was going to speak my mind no matter what, winner or not,” he said. "If something needs to be said and no one else wants to speak up, I’m not afraid to do it. I can take all the criticism that comes with it. That’s fine. If I’m trying to protect the players and the caddies and the TOUR, I’m not afraid to do it."
And trust me, Horschel has heard your criticisms. During many of the day’s breaks, he quick-draws his phone from his pocket and is scanning Twitter and Instagram looking for the good, the bad, the celebratory and the misinformed. He doesn’t mind engaging with any of them.
“I’m sure I spend too much time with this stuff,” he says, motioning to his phone. “But I don’t want to be one of those guys that just turns it over to someone else. Trust me, no one is ever going to send a tweet for me. I love going back and forth with the fans – at least the respectful ones. I just try to be authentic on there and let fans know exactly who I am."
He thinks for second about the minor contradiction in which he just caught himself.
“Of course, there are sponsor requests that come up every now and then,” he said. “But you know what, those sponsors take care of me. That has to go both ways or it doesn’t work."
And now we are at the crux of what today is all about.
From a sponsor standpoint, Horschel is as good as it gets on media day. When we arrive at the World of Coca-Cola, he’s engaging in all company, catering staff to executive staff, switching conversations quickly and easily, talking about Urban Meyer’s defense, the impact of the East Lake Foundation, the fan experience in Atlanta and his vintage Coke machine (it’s filled with Sprite) in the span of a few moments. Everyone takes a photo and everyone walks away knowing that having a winner like Horschel is worth the investment in the tournament. And Horschel, for his part, is among those on TOUR that understands it has to go both ways. Otherwise it doesn’t work.
If Horschel feels comfortable with executives at the World of Coke, I’m not sure what word describes how he felt at the next stop: The College Football Hall of Fame.
From the moment he walks in, taking in the massive mosaic of helmets suspended from the ceiling, Horschel’s grin is even wider than normal. He’s handed a sleek-looking VIP pass and when he holds it up to the touchscreen upstairs, he’s greeted by a digital Chick-Fil-A cow who apparently, “Haz no beef with Gatorz."
As the expansive board is automatically turned into a digital homage to the best Florida Gators in program history, Horschel’s grin approaches stress fracture levels. In a day full of interviews, photo ops, and pre-recorded video messages for TV specials, tournament announcements and even an upcoming 5K (I don’t think that one was on the shot list), this stop seems like it was built-in just for Horschel.
Before a full tour of the facility, Horschel puts himself through his own version of the combine. He tries to kick a field goal (it’s the closest he’s come to a shank in a decade), he shows off his precision passing and he lays out horizontally to catch touchdown passes, cheering and laughing as he pulls in an under-thrown pass and crashes into a blue padded mat. Before we leave, Horschel puts a few of his on-camera skills to the test. He taps into a future as an analyst when he sits on the makeshift College GameDay set and delivers his cliche “who wants it more” lines perfectly. His singing needs work, however. After a few painful bars of a Florida fight song on the Hall of Fame’s sound stage, he’s practically tackled off the stage by the TOUR’s communications director, sending the entire group into hysterical laughter as the tour presses on.
The final stop of the day is Phillips Arena, where Horschel rides an elevator down to the practice court of the Atlanta Hawks. There’s he greeted by a man that looks a lot like the Dominique Wilkins statue we saw outside, just a bit older and with a less impressive vertical.
Horschel’s final challenge of the day is to join a partner from the East Lake Foundation, the organization that has helped turn around the neighborhood that borders the site of the TOUR Championship, in a HORSE-like game against Wilkins and his East Lake partner. The game comes down to a tie-breaking three-pointer from the top of the key for Horschel. He steps up and buries it.
As we head to the airport, I ask Horschel if he played basketball in high school.
“Nope,” he says. “I’ve never really played."
Insert your own metaphors about competitiveness and grace under pressure. Just know that Billy Horschel doesn’t like to lose.
Before we take off for Greensboro, I ask Horschel the final question that’s on my mind.
“Do you think about what would be different in your life if you didn’t have those three weeks of perfect golf?”
“Maybe I could have made some phone calls and still gotten us in the aquarium,” he says with a laugh.
He thinks about the day and the question for a moment. He thinks about his life and how it’s changed. And how it hasn’t.
"I think I knew what my life was before the FedExCup,” he says. "I knew what I had, I knew how special everything was and I was appreciative of it all.
"I love my life. I say it all the time. I hashtag it on Twitter. I love my life. I really, truly love my life. I wouldn’t change it for anything."
And with that, we strap in for our flight and Horschel drifts off to sleep. He won’t be having the FedExCup dream again. He already knows it’s better in real life.