PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Confidence is something that Billy Horschel has never lacked.
Not when he was forced to return to PGA Tour Qualifying School last year, a sure sign of a disappointing season. He played well enough there to win back his card, then boldly predicted he would win an event in 2013.
Not when he stood over a 27-foot birdie putt on the 72d hole two weeks ago at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans, needing to make it for his first PGA Tour victory. The putt never left its necessary line and eventually disappeared.
Not even years ago, when he stood in the family’s backyard, sizing up a risky shot over the house that only a boy bursting with self-belief would ever contemplate. But Horschel had already carried the structure, hitting the ball from the front yard to the back for the first time in his life only minutes earlier.
So he stood over the ball, knowing the contact and the carry the shot required, and took a swing. He looked up just in time to see the golf ball break the glass of the dining-room window — a blow that could have shattered his psyche. Instead, he ran inside, raced to his bedroom, and when confronted by his father, did what many scared boys would do.
He blamed his younger brother.
Horschel didn’t get away with it, as you might suspect. But it’s a story he can look back on and laugh about, because it so accurately reflects who he has become: a talented golfer willing to risk a few steps back in his dogged pursuit of greatness.
Unlike that day in Florida, everything has been going Horschel’s way lately. In fact, he arguably is playing the best golf of anybody in the field at this year’s Players Championship, which starts Thursday on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. In his last four starts, Horschel has a tie for second, a tie for third, a tie for ninth, and finally his first victory.
Confidence? You could say Horschel is riding some.
“I think I’ve just sort of checked the boxes of what it takes in my mind to be a winner out here,” Horschel said Wednesday. “I think I’ve done that, and I’m just going to keep taking that next step, trying to be a guy who is always up there on top of the leaderboard and always contending for tournaments and majors.
“I want to be the best player in the world. And I’ll do whatever it takes to try to achieve that goal.”
He is quite a long way from No. 1 — he’s 49th in the world rankings — but one of Horschel’s goals is being realized this week. He is making his Players debut, one of 26 first-timers competing in the PGA Tour’s most lucrative tournament ($9.5 million purse, $1.71 million going to the winner).
As a lifelong Florida resident — the last four years in nearby Jacksonville Beach — Horschel can finally spend Players Championship week the way he’s always intended: inside the ropes.
The past three years, his daily routine during Players week was the same torturous drill. He’d come to TPC Sawgrass in the morning, visit with some of his friends who were playing in the tournament, then practice somewhere else in the afternoon.
This week’s schedule is much more favorable.
“It means a lot that I can finally play in this,” Horschel said. “It’s nice to finally be here hitting golf shots instead of just walking around it and watching other people do it.
“So I’m looking forward to a great week, and hopefully I can perform the way I have in the past month.”
Much has been expected of Horschel, 26, who was a three-time All-American at the University of Florida. He flourished with the Gators, despite initially receiving a very small scholarship (books only) from legendary coach Buddy Alexander.
He played his way into the 2006 US Open as an amateur (his lone major championship appearance to date), and earned a spot on the 2007 US Walker Cup team, joining a roster that was loaded with future Tour winners: Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson, Chris Kirk, Kyle Stanley. Seven of the 10 members from that team are in this week’s Players field; Horschel is the sixth to grab a PGA Tour win.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the fast-talking, faster-swinging Gator. Horschel suffered a wrist injury that sidelined him for much of the 2010 season, and didn’t finish high enough on the money list in 2011 or 2012 to retain his playing privileges.
But he saw enough at the end of 2012 to give him reason to believe that this could be a special year. Only one resulted in a high finish (third), but Horschel made 11 consecutive cuts to close out 2012; combined with all 12 starts this season, Horschel is the active leader on the PGA Tour with 23 straight cuts made. He’s up to third on the Tour’s points list, and with $2,567, 891, has more than doubled his previous career earnings.
Horschel is an emotional player, not afraid to react to shots both good and bad. He has worked on his demeanor, which can be demonstrative at times, but he doesn’t want to ignore who he is, because that has fueled his drive to become a Tour winner.
Many of his peers grew up in privilege, playing private courses with the best equipment. Horschel’s upbringing was much more blue collar, his father working in construction, his mother in a government sales job.
The Horschels will gather at the Stadium Course this week to watch Billy play in the state’s biggest golf event. Nobody here has played consistently as well as Horschel the past month. He has been rewarded with a marquee grouping, paired with Johnson and Ernie Els — proof that he is the player many thought he’d become.
It’s a pairing that could intimidate someone who lacks confidence. That’s definitely not Horschel.
“They’re great players in their own right, but I don’t think I’m any different than what they are,” Horschel said. “Do they have more credentials than me? Sure. But if you think of yourself as inferior to what they are, then you’re already behind the 8-ball.
“I think I’m just as good as those guys. I’m not intimidated by them. I’m not intimidated by the situation of me being in a feature group. It comes with the territory of what I’ve done, and I think I’m ready to handle that situation.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.