He’s easy to like, a competitor who wants your best against his best. Billy Horschel is friendly and open. He’s just as easy to dislike.
“Yeah,” he says flat out, “I think you’ve got to be cocky.”
In his youth — Horschel now is 28 — that attitude absolutely frosted a sweet, Irish lad named Rory McIlroy, who wasn’t sure if he wanted to use a driver to outplay Horschel or to whack Billy over the head.
“It was pretty heated,” McIlroy agreed.
That was in 2007, when each was an amateur in the Walker Cup matches at Royal County Down, not too many miles from McIlroy’s home in Northern Ireland. “Back then,” McIlroy said, “we were a little bit younger and a little more emotional.”
Time and maturity have soothed feelings. “We’re good mates,” McIlroy insisted now. Yet the history is very much a part of today’s meeting between McIlroy and Horschel in the World Golf Championship Cadillac Match Play Championship at TPC Harding Park.
One of them is going to emerge from their round-robin pod of four — the so-called Group of Death, as borrowed from soccer’s World Cup — to make it to Saturday, when knockout play starts. The other is going to head to San Francisco International Airport for a flight to, well, if it’s McIlroy to Las Vegas for the Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather fight and maybe back again for Sunday play. If he gets that far.
“If you don’t win,” McIlroy said, “you go home. So it’s do or die [today] and looking forward to it.”
No more than Horschel.
“Looking forward to playing McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world,” Horschel said, “and see what happens. Obviously we have a track record against each other.”
Horschel and the 25-year-old McIlroy each won his second-day match Thursday, Horschel thumping former PGA champ Jason Duffner 3 and 2 and McIlroy defeating Brandt Snedeker 2 up. Duffner and Snedeker both are 0-2, punching bags without any opportunity to advance, but they’ll play each other, anyway.
The anticipation has been for a final Sunday afternoon between McIlroy, the British Open and PGA champion, and Jordan Spieth, who won the Masters so impressively a couple weeks back he made to the cover of Sports Illustrated, which never puts golfers out there unless they’re named Rory or Tiger.
That matchup still is possible, Spieth beating Matt Every 4 and 3 to remain unbeaten after two matches in his pod. It certainly isn’t inevitable.
“You’ve got to be confident,” Horschel reiterated. “You’ve got to be cocky. Sometimes you’re not going to be the favorite in that match. But you’ve got to have so much confidence to the point it’s bordering on cockiness and arrogance when you go up against certain players. And I’m not afraid to show that.”
Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen are undefeated in their pod and will face each other. Already eliminated from the knockout round, but still playing in with today’s’ round-robin are Keegan Bradley and Adam Scott, major winners, and Jason Day, last year’s match-play champion.
Hunter Mahan, the 2012 champion, defeated Ben Martin 5 and 3 and is the only one in his group without a loss. “Still got to win,” Mahan said.
Mahan said he wasn’t happy the match play will move to Austin, Texas, next year. “It’s a bummer to leave San Fran,” he said. “One of my favorite cities. Great golf town. Great golf courses.”
And this week some very great golfers.
“What Jordan did is unbelievable,” Horschel said. “Twenty-one years old and win the Masters. I would never have thought of that when I was 21.
“If they want to say, obviously right now, Rory and Jordan Spieth are the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world, and a rivalry, sure,” Horschel said. “But there’s too many good young players in this game.”
And Billy Horschel agrees he’s one of them.