Former UF standout Horschel set for The Players

Billy Horschel is coming off a win at the Zurich Classic in Avondale, La., last month. [Associated Press]

By Garry Smits
GateHouse Media Services

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Billy Horschel isn’t making any predictions, just stating a fact: his game is on a definitive upward trend since missing his fifth cut in six starts at the Masters last month and the Ponte Vedra Beach resident said some good work recently with instructor Todd Anderson has yielded improved ball-striking and renewed confidence.

He’ll need gobs of both at The Players Championship this week.

“I thought we had it figured out at Augusta,” said Horschel, who will make his sixth start in The Players on Thursday when he tees off with Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.

“But we didn’t and went back to work Saturday morning,” he continued. “I’ve got a thick skull and sometimes it takes a little while to get through, but it did. We simplified everything and I started hitting better irons shots. That’s given me more opportunities to make more birdies, starting getting into a little flow of putting and that puts more confidence in your entire game. You start making those puts and it’s off to the races.”

Since the Masters, Horschel has tied for fifth at the RBC Heritage, tied for 11th at the Valero Texas Open, and two weeks ago combined with Scott Piercy to win the Zurich Classic, the PGA Tour’s team event in New Orleans. It was Horschel’s fifth PGA Tour victory and he said it felt every bit as good as an individual stroke-play title — better, in one way.

“Any victory feels good and the team thing didn’t matter,” said the University of Florida graduate and 2014 FedEx Cup champion. “But it was different in that you want to play well for a teammate and he wants to play well for you. When you both do that, it’s an awesome feeling to help another person, come together and achieve the ultimate goal. It was a great feeling to have.”

One can only speculate how Horschel would feel winning The Players. He missed the cut last year but was briefly in the mix during the final round in 2015 before tying for 13th.

Horschel said the Stadium Course suits his game — when he’s playing to his strength as a ball-striker.

“Todd and I have worked really hard all year,” Horschel said. “I think I’m back to putting the way I putted my entire career and where I’ve struggled has been the ball-striking.”

His recent streak of solid play has bumped Horschel to 41st in driving accuracy (.649) and 48th in greens in regulation (.677). Horschel is 19th on the Tour in making putts between 4-8 feet (.756), 36th on all putts inside 10 feet (.883) and has yet to miss a putt inside 3 feet, leading the Tour by making all 347 attempts.

Yet, Horschel continues to battle what he said is a perception that he’s not a good putter.

“Unfortunately, when these golf analysts say I’m a weak putter, they don’t do their research and see that historically I think I’ve been a really good putter, and a great putter inside 10 feet,” he said.

Horschel also has an added motivation for making more putts: for the second year in a row at The Players, he’s donating $1,000 for every birdie and $5,000 for every eagle to Feeding Northeast Florida, the charity on which he and his wife Brittany have decided to spend most of their time and resources.

Horschel said his goal is to help Feeding Northeast Florida make the First Coast “food secure” … in other words, no hungry people.

“Food is the most basic need we have to achieve a healthy life,” he said. “Almost 300,000 families a night in Northeast Florida go without enough food … one in four adults, one in six children. Brittany and I wanted to be part of something where the goal is attainable.”

The Players Championship donated $500,000 to Feeding Northeast Florida earlier this year.

“The more I can accomplish on the golf course, the more I can accomplish off the golf course,” he said.