It may be time to re-welcome Billy Horschel into the club of the PGA Tour elite. The 34-year-old defeated scorching-hot local favorite Scottie Scheffler 2&1 to win the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship at Austin Country Club in Austin, Texas.
Horschel is best known for the blazing run he made through the FedExCup Playoffs in 2014, when he was sitting in 82nd place after the first event, and went T2-WIN-WIN to take the FedExCup entirely.
The loquacious University of Florida product has been somewhat up-and-down since, even winning two additional times between 2017 and 2018, but this is his first big-scale win since that playoff run more than six years ago.
The WGC-Match Play pitted the top 64 players in the world via the Official World Golf Ranking against each other, with only five players missing (those ranked 12th, 25th, 38th, 51st, and 56th respectively) in a match play style that Tour golfers only see otherwise if they make the biennial Ryder Cup and/or Presidents Cup team.
The 64 golfers were separated into four groups, with each group containing a pool A (1-16th in the OWGR), B (17-32), C (33-48), and D (49-64th). Each golfer played the other three in their group, with the one accumulating the best record moving onto the single-elimination 16-person bracket.
Horschel was making his fifth start in this event, with his previous high being a T17 in the 2015 edition, the last under the former format, which was all single-elimination. This year, he had to play seven matches over the five days of the tournament.
At 34th in the world rankings, and 32nd in the field, he was the last of the “pool B” golfers, which put him in a group with reigning PGA Champion Collin Morikawa, recent Genesis Invitational winner Max Homa, and Western Carolina product J.T. Poston.
He defeated Homa in the first match of pool play before dropping his only match of the week, surprisingly against Poston, who was the 63rd overall seed in the field. By upsetting Morikawa, the 24-year-old who won the most recently held WGC event, and being fortunate that Homa beat Poston, Horschel reached a sudden-death playoff with Homa for the group. He won in three extra holes.
As a whole, pool play went shockingly opposite to what was expected. Of the 16 pool A golfers, just one, No. 3 seed Jon Rahm, advanced out of group play. Conversely eight of the 16 group winners were pool D golfers.
Horschel cruised through the first round 3 & 1 over No. 53 Kevin Streelman, winning the first hole and never losing that lead. In the quarterfinals, he knocked off No. 21 Tommy Fleetwood, who was the second-highest ranked player to make it out of the group stage, in 19 holes, in a match Horschel did not lead until that extra hole.
Then, in his first Sunday match, Horschel used seven birdies to skate past little-known Frenchman Victor Perez (No. 31) in the semi-finals. Setting up his championship match against No. 30 Scheffler.
Despite never having played this event before, Scheffler was considered a daunting draw for Horschel in the final round. The 24-year-old was the local favorite, having been a star collegiate player at the University of Texas. While he is still looking for his first PGA Tour win, it feels imminent, as he has already contended in several big-time events, with top five finishes since last August at the PGA Championship, The Northern Trust, and the WGC-Workday Championship.
In addition, Scheffler exploded into the championship match off a much more difficult gauntlet than Horschel, beating Ryder Cup legend Ian Poulter, the only man to go 3-0-0 in the group stage, 5&4, before knocking out Rahm 3&1, and then former event champion Matt Kuchar 2&1.
In the final, it looked like Scheffler might do away with Horschel as effortlessly as he did the others, when Horschel hit his tee shot on the second hole into the penalty area and settled for bogey. Scheffler carded a birdie to go 1-up.
Shockingly, it ended up being Scheffler’s only birdie of the match, despite him ranking 16th on Tour in birdie average. Horschel only had one birdie over the 17 holes himself, on the par-4 5th, where he chipped in from 43 feet right of the hole to tie the match. Scheffler bogeyed 7 and 9, with Horschel parring both to go 2-up at the turn.
The two matched on every hole they played on the back, even on the par-5 12th, when a Horschel three-putt, and a wet approach shot from Scheffler caused both to bogey.
Needing to match Scheffler on the par-3 17th hole to win the match, Horschel calmly two-putted from 25 feet, while Scheffler narrowly missed his 10.9 footer for birdie, which would have cut the lead to one with one hole remaining.
It was the sixth career victory for Horschel, who last won in 2018, when he and Scott Piercy teamed up to win the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, the only team event on the annual schedule. It was Horschel’s first career win in a WGC event, but he has been playing well in these events the past several years. This was his seventh consecutive top-25 in a WGC, including a runner-up finish at February’s WGC-Workday Championship.
Billy Horschel def. Scottie Scheffler 2&1
Matt Kuchar def. Victor Perez 2&1
Billy Horschel def. Victor Perez 3&2
Scottie Scheffler def. Matt Kuchar 1-up
Final-4 Check Cashers
1. Billy Horschel – $1,820,000
2. Scottie Scheffler – $1,150,00
3. Matt Kuchar – $740,000
4. Victor Perez – $600,000
What It Means For Horschel
That incredible 2014 FedExCup playoff run put Horschel on the map as a professional, but he had become somewhat forgotten again in the years since. He has posted two victories in the years since, the 2017 AT&T Byron Nelson, where he defeated World No. 1 Jason Day in a playoff, and the aforementioned team win at the 2018 Zurich, which is not a highly-regarded event.
Horschel had been hit-or-miss in the 2021 season, with three finishes inside the top seven coming into the week, but had also either missed the cut or finished outside the top 50 in five of his last seven starts.
The win jumped Horschel into 7th in the FedExCup standings, all but assuring himself a spot in the 30-man Tour Championship in September. His world ranking moved from 34th to 17th, his first time inside the top 20 since he dropped out after the 2015 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. His highest career ranking is 12th late in 2014.
Horschel is hoping this victory gives him some momentum in the major season with The Masters coming up in two weeks. His career results in majors have been underwhelming. In his first major as a professional, he finished T4 at the 2013 U.S. Open, co-leading with Phil Mickelson at the halfway point. Since then, he has not finished better than T17 in 26 starts.
He also hopes this could get him into the upcoming Ryder Cup, an event he has not made in the past. He jumped from 18th to 11th in the Ryder Cup Standings, putting captain Steve Stricker on notice. The top six qualify automatically, and the captain gets to pick the next six, up from four previously. The fact that the Ryder Cup is a match play event should work heavily in his favor, as long as his play does not fall off in the time leading up to it.
The Consolation Match
In the third place match, 42-year-old Matt Kuchar rolled over Victor Perez 2&1, winning the first hole with a bogey and not relinquishing that lead, even getting ahead as much as 4-up through 12 holes. Like Scheffler, Perez missed a 25-foot putt on the 17th that would have extended the match.
For Kuchar, it was a phenomenal week for a player who had come into the event in horrendous form, with nothing better than an October T34 in 11 starts this season. That form was likely the biggest reason Kuchar was only picked to get past the group stage in 1.5% of brackets in an annual contest on PGATour.com.
However, more probably should have been expected from Kuchar. Despite recent struggles and being the unfortunate pool D player in the group of death, which put him up against PLAYERS Champion Justin Thomas, defending champion Kevin Kisner, and former Open Champion Louis Oosthuizen, Kuchar has been a phenomenal match play golfer in his career.
In this event alone, he won the 2013 edition, finished runner-up to Kisner in 2019, the most recent WGC-Match Play held (2020 version cancelled due to COVID), and has two other third places. He is clearly very comfortable in this format. Even with that competency in match play, he only ranks 23rd in the Ryder Cup standings, he will likely need to play better in the coming months if he wants to be named to his fifth Ryder Cup team.
Perez, on the other hand, was barely known in the U.S. coming into the week. The world No. 32 (now 30th), has won on the European Tour before (2019 Alfred Dunhill Links championship), but has played in just three majors and one previous WGC event.
The 28-year-old from France had played in just 13 PGA events, all in the past two years, but could have received special temporary membership if he had beaten Kuchar in the third-place match. Perez reached the final four by impressively knocking off experienced match play golfer Sergio Garcia in the quarterfinals, before Horschel got the better of him in the semifinals, in a 3&2 affair.
While he was not quite able to get out of quarterfinals, Brian Harman had a great week in Austin. The 34-year-old left-hander showed a great deal of resilience this week, bouncing back from an opening day loss to Patrick Cantlay to reach a playoff as the pool D golfer in his group.
In that playoff, he got his revenge on Cantlay to advance to the round of 16. In that match, against 2018 WGC-Match Play champion Bubba Watson, Harman was 4-down after six holes. He then rattled off seven(!) consecutive birdies, moving from 4-down to 2-up during that span. He defeated Watson 2&1.
This weekend’s largest beatings were both 5&4 results in the quarterfinals. One was by Scheffler over No. 60 Ian Poulter, with Poulter failing to win a single hole in the match despite breezing through group play as the D golfer of his respective group, which also contained Rory McIlroy, Cameron Smith, and Lanto Griffin.
The other 5&4 loss came at the hands of Perez by Scotland’s Robert McIntyre. The No. 41 seed got into the round of 16 with a 1-0-2 record, which included a tie with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. The 24-year-old McIntyre, playing in his first WGC-Match Play, was 6-down through 12 when he extended the match with an eagle on the driveable par-4 13th, with his tee shot landing just five feet from the hole. Unfortunately for him, a 66-foot birdie he needed to extend the match on the next hole failed to drop.
“I mean, it’s huge. I know I’ve won on Tour and I feel like I should have won more. I should have at least contended more in some of these WGC events and Majors.
“I think everyone who knows me or is around me knows that I put in a tireless amount of work, day-in and day-out, and sometimes I’m hard on myself when I’m not seeing the results right away and that’s why I probably haven’t consistently played well week-in, week-out, year to year.
“I’ve had some ups and downs. I am trying to be a little bit easier on myself and I think this year’s been a little bit better of that and it’s just nice to finally see some results. Like I said, my entire team works hard and it’s nice to finally see the results for all of us.”
– Billy Horschel, WGC-Dell Match Play Champion