Billy Horschel, who grew up on Florida's Space Coast, was like a rocket in the golfing world that everyone knew was ready to take off sooner or later. The final Space Shuttle mission ended safely when Atlantis returned home on July 21, 2011 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The Horschel Rocket reached a new altitude with his first PGA Tour win in New Orleans icing the victory with a lengthy birdie putt on the last hole.
Like a night liftoff, all you needed to do was find a nearby spot and watch the brilliant light emerge from the horizon, cross the skies and disappear into the heavens above. For the Horschel Rocket all you needed to do was find a comfortable spot and turn on your TV. If you missed one episode, there was another one right behind it.
In only his 61st PGA Tour event, Billy-the-Rocket broke through after testing the atmosphere in gradual steps along the way. Ten years ago, the now 26-year-old won back-to-back Space Coast Golfer of the Year awards as he made his way through Bayside High School in Palm Bay, Florida. Palm Bay is not far from his home in Grant, which is not far from Melbourne on Florida's east coast. There was the 61 he shot at Sandpiper Golf Club. Also there was the honor roll and National Honor Society for the acclaimed, but not highly acclaimed, young golfer heading for the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Playing for longtime Gator coach Buddy Alexander, Horschel shot 75 in his first competitive round, but won his first collegiate individual medal before his freshman season ended when he tied for first at the NCAA West Regional. He qualified for the U.S. Open the following summer, played on the 2007 Walker Cup team and went on to win three more times in college including the Southeastern Conference Championship his senior year.
How many rockets take off in life but fail to pull away from the gravity of early success and expectations? This is where the Horschel story becomes the story for all aspiring youngsters whether in golf or life.
After missing the cut in his first four PGA Tour events (two as an amateur, two as a pro) over a three year period, Horschel earned his tour card and his first paycheck ($25,000) with a seventh place finish at Q-School in late 2009.
His rookie season on tour in 2010 was a shortened season due to injury and subsequent surgery on his left wrist. He made no cuts on the PGA Tour in four attempts and only one of five on the Web.com Tour. The early PGA Tour play, late Web.com play season to rehabilitate the wrist finished well with a T27 at Q-School.
With a tour card to supplement his Major Medical Extension (MME) in 2011, he made 11 of 25 cuts on the PGA Tour with two top-10 finishes at Reno-Tahoe and Frys.com coming late in the season. Falling short of making the MME number, finishing No. 140 on the Money List and a T104 finish left Horschel with conditional status on tour for 2012.
More importantly, the guidance system was adjusted late in the 2011 season after a pair of 64's to open at Sea Island in the Fall Series was followed by a 70-75 on the weekend.
"I think 2011 at McGladrey hurt the most. Playing a golf course I played a lot in college, my coach (Todd Anderson) being up there, a lot of family and friends. I didn't play very well. But what hurt most was the way I handled myself on the golf course. It was pretty pathetic in my mind. I got called out on it from family and friends, and I don't like doing anything wrong in front of my family or my friends, and that was a big turning point."
Consistency came in the 2012 season making 15 of 17 cuts. One very bright spot illuminated the career to come for Horschel when he holed his last shot, a 91-yard wedge for eagle in Mississippi on a Saturday in July. That shot and a Sunday 1-under 71 was good for solo third, his career best at the time.
Conditional with a money list No. 147 finish but once again refueled with a T4 finish at Q-School, Horschel headed back on tour in 2013 with consistency and confidence. Early on there was a T11 at the Humana and a T10 in Phoenix, both capped off with a Sunday 67. Then there was the Sunday start and Monday finished 85 at Bay Hill that was quickly followed by a Sunday 66 a week later in Houston to finish T2. Top 10s in Texas and Hilton Head put Horschel in the proper orbit for his win in New Orleans.
"All the other close calls, none of them put a scar on me at all. I think it just gave me more motivation to work hard and get that first victory. I took more positives away from all of those than any negatives. I played well. It just wasn't my time."
"I was finally able to do my thing on the final round and not worry about who I was playing with or what the people in front of me or behind me are dealing with. This is something that I've wanted since I've turned pro, and I've always felt I was good enough to win out here. I just felt I had to check every box."
Every box on the checklist for takeoff has been checked. Ignition. Countdown complete. The Horschel Rocket is now in orbit for all to see.
Author's Note: Andy Reistetter is a freelance golf writer. Check out his website at http://www.outsidetheropesentertainment.com/