Billy Horschel. Dylan Buell
Billy Horschel hit two greens in regulation on Thursday at the Memorial Tournament — or as many times as he hit his ball in a single stroke during a miserable round that had the defending champion fighting back tears in the aftermath.
One year after registering one of the more satisfying wins of his career, Horschel said he never felt lower after struggling to a 12-over 84 at sun-scorched Muirfield Village Golf Club. The former FedEx Cup champion wasn’t the only player to struggle on a sweltering afternoon, or the only player who failed to break 80, but the complete breakdown of his swing left him utterly deflated.
"I'll go out there and give it my all like I always do."
Transparency and raw emotion from defending champion Billy Horschel after an opening round 84. pic.twitter.com/4Cx7r6hmPL
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 2, 2023
“My confidence is the lowest it’s been in my entire career — I think ever in my entire golf career,” Horschel said, graciously stopping to talk to the media after signing his card. “So it’s funny, as low as it feels, it feels like I’m not that far off at the same time. Which is insane to see when you see me shoot 84 today. It doesn’t, it wouldn’t make sense to a lot of people. But I don’t think I’m that far off.”
Shut out on birdies while suffering three double-bogeys and six bogeys, Horschel shot the highest opening round by a defending champion in tournament history, surpassing the 80 that Jim Simons posted to start his title defence in 1979.
It won’t make him feel any better, but other past winners have had their own trying times at Muirfield Village, where water is in play on 13 holes. Five-time champion Tiger Woods cratered to a third-round 85 in 2015. Will McGirt won the 2016 Memorial and then shot a final-round 83 the following year. And inaugural winner Roger Maltbie skied to a 92 in the famed second round of the 1979 Memorial when the wind chill dropped temperatures to 13 degrees.
Compounding the problem — or perhaps because of his problems — Horschel and playing partners Patrick Cantlay and Hideki Matsuyama, who also are past Memorial winners, were put on the clock for slow play.
“Listen, I’m making a big number on every single hole it seems like. I’m struggling every hole,” Horschel said. “The group in front of us played quick and we got … I was taking a lot of extra shots than what we normally would do. I mean, we got warned at No. 13, but we, I think we were back in position by No. 15 tee.”
In between, he made double bogey at the short par-4 14th hole that included a chunked fourth shot from a steep lie just above the greenside water hazard. He later revealed that he double hit it, which in the past would have resulted in a penalty.
It was that kind of day in a year that has been a disappointment. Horschel, 36, has only two top-10 finishes this 2022-23 season, but missed the cut at both The Players and the PGA Championship. He closed with a 79 at the Masters to fall to 52nd place. His scoring average of 71.20 ranks 162nd on tour this season and he is currently 108th in the FedEx Cup standings, far removed from the top 70 that will make the playoffs.
“I need the swing to be a little bit better. I need to do a few more things a little bit better,” the seven-time tour winner said. “I just need to see a few more quality golf shots, and that’s just what I haven’t had. And it’s tough when you come to a course like this and you need to be precise tee to green and I’m not really precise right now from tee to green.”
At one point during his interview, he paused for at least a half-minute to compose himself. A year ago, Horschel put together a brilliant third-round 65 to forge a five-shot lead and he went on to win by four. He talked about trying to finish off a victory the way Woods would finish them. He talked about building on that strong performance that helped him make his first US Presidents Cup team.
Reaching new heights makes the falls harder to take, hurt more. Horschel was hurting. He vowed to get up off the turf.
“As much as I would love to throw in the towel and not come out tomorrow, that’s just not in me,” he said. “I’m just not one of those players. There’s plenty of those guys out here on tour that would make an excuse about being injured and everything. But I’ll show up and I’ll go out there and give it my all like I always do and try and find something, try and play well, and move on. I mean, it’s a day and I’ve had plenty of these days this year. Not this bad, but it’s just a day.
“Yeah, it’s a challenge out there, there’s no doubt about it,” he added. “But like I said, I’ll keep plugging away and I’ll keep pushing forward, and I’ll keep grinding hard, I’ll keep working hard and hopefully it [expletive] comes around soon.”
He apologised for letting the expletive slip out. No need. It was his straightest shot all day.