AUSTIN, Texas — Billy Horschel is back among the top 20 in the world for the first time since the summer of 2015, and all it took was low expectations and the longest week of his career.
Horschel demands a lot from himself, and that starts with preparation. That's why it was so unusual for him to spend a week on the water at the Florida beaches of Melbourne with his family, not touching a club for seven days before arriving at the Dell Technologies Match Play.
All he wanted was to see what kind of shape his game was in so he could figure out what needed work going into the Masters. Five days, seven matches and 122 holes later, he had his first World Golf Championship.
"You just never know when you're going to win," he said. "You just never know when it's going to be your time."
And in this case, he couldn't have imagined how he would win Sunday at Austin Country Club.
Horschel made only one birdie in the championship match against Scottie Scheffler, and that was on the fifth hole when he chipped in from below the green. Even with nothing but pars and one bogey the rest of the way, he never lost a hole.
On two par 5s, Horschel was in the fairway and Scheffler had to take a penalty drop, and both times they halved the hole with a par (No. 6) and a bogey (No. 12). On another par 5 with a chance to close out the match, Horschel again was in the fairway and Scheffler was in the trees with barely a shot out to the fairway. Horschel had to get up and down from a bunker behind the green to halve the 16th.
It wasn't pretty. It wasn't easy. But he won on the 17th hole when Scheffler couldn't make a 10-foot birdie to send the match down the final hole.
"It wasn't pretty at all," Horschel said. "It was just one of those days where you knew you just had to keep grinding out, trying to give yourself the best opportunity to make easy pars and hopefully that was going to get the job done."
And there was some luck involved, because there usually is in this most fickle format.
Max Homa had a putt to send him home on Friday. Horschel had to make a 20-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole against Tommy Fleetwood in the quarterfinals, and then won that match when Fleetwood hit out-of-bounds on the first extra hole. Even then, Horchel had to make a 5-foot putt.
And it helped that at the end of the five-day tournament, neither Victor Perez in the semifinals nor Scheffler in the championship match had their best stuff. By the end of the week, it seems no one did.
Perez lost three holes on the back nine with bogeys.
Scheffler, who had made 15 birdies in 31 hole to beat Ian Poulter and Jon Rahm on Saturday, and who made a 10-foot birdie on the 17th hole that led to a tough win over Matt Kuchar in the semifinals, didn't make anything in the last match. His only birdie was conceded from 35 feet because Horschel had hit into a hazard.
"I couldn't really get that spark that I needed," Scheffler said. "And I gave myself some opportunities, just wasn't able to make the putts."
Horschel can only wonder if lowering his expectations only helped. He sounded more worn out from his time at the beach than over the five days on the golf course. But he needed it. Striving for perfection can take a toll.
"I needed a mental reboot," he said, "and that's what I got."
Now he has bigger goals, starting with his next opportunity at match play. He has never played in the Ryder Cup, and while he remains outside the top qualifying spots, he still has four majors and a World Golf Championship on his schedule.
Horschel played in the Walker Cup against Rory McIlroy in 2007 at Royal County Down, where he got under McIlroy's skin with his passion for team play and beat him in singles and a foursomes match before McIlroy returned the favor by beating Horschel in Sunday singles.
But match play hasn't always worked out for him as a pro. In four previous trips to this event, Horschel never got to the weekend. The one loss that stings was against McIlroy — him again — at Harding Park in 2015, when McIlroy birdied the last two holes and beat him on the 20th hole with a par.
Timing wasn't on his side the one shot he had at the Ryder Cup. The captain's picks were made the week before Horschel won the last two FedEx Cup playoff events, and beat McIlroy at East Lake to capture the cup.
"Maybe this year is the year," he said. "We're still six months away from the Ryder Cup, so there's still a lot of golf left to be played and we'll just have to see how the rest of the year plays out."
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