ATLANTA (AP) — Billy Horschel and Rory McIlroy playing in the final group always stirs memories from amateur days long ago.
Horschel is a blend of energy and enthusiasm, a mixture that can rub other players the wrong way. One of those players was McIlroy, who was irritated by the Floridian’s level of excitement over every shot. That was seven years ago at the Walker Cup in Northern Ireland.
“He’s a good buddy,” Horschel said, and there is nothing to suggest there was any grudge carried over from those matches.
So much has changed since that Walker Cup. And when they play in the last group Saturday at the Tour Championship, the stakes are so different.
This is not about country or flag. This is about $10 million — all but $1 million of that in cash.
Horschel and McIlroy were among the top five seeds going into the FedEx Cup finale at East Lake, meaning they only have to win the Tour Championship to capture the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus.
Horschel had another round of 4-under 66 and built a two-shot lead over McIlroy, who ran off six birdies in his tournament-best round of 65.
Not to be forgotten is Chris Kirk, the No. 1 seed in the FedEx Cup. He made four straight birdies around the turn to take the lead, only to drop two shots on the back nine and settle for a 68 that left him tied with McIlroy and Jason Day, who had a 67.
Horschel might be one of the hottest players in golf. He posted his 10th straight round in the 60s. He is 35 under par during that stretch.
McIlroy? He’s the best player in golf, No. 1 in the world with no debate.
They are the headliners among some things to consider going into the weekend at the Tour Championship:
MEMORIES: Horschel knew he was playing a good golfer when he faced off with McIlroy at Royal County Down in 2007. He just didn’t know how good.
“Everyone in the UK media hyped him up over there, and especially because he was low amateur in the British Open,” Horschel said. “I knew he was very talented. But did I see him winning three majors (four, actually) and did I see him winning two majors by eight shots? No. It’s tough to see that in someone so young. He was 18 years old. You never know what’s in store for someone at such a young age. But I knew he was going to be good.”
BALL IN POCKET: If winning requires a few good breaks, consider the plight of McIlroy. He missed his tee shot slightly to the right on the 14th hole, saw it headed to the trees and had no idea where it went until he arrived on the scene to see the fans standing around a bunch of pine straw.
The ball somehow came out of the trees and dropped straight into a spectator’s pocket.
McIlroy was given a free drop. The tough part was how to get the ball out.
“I wasn’t going in there,” McIlroy said. “I know how sweaty my pockets are. I’m not going in anyone else’s.”
McIlroy took a drop as near as possible to where the man had been standing, knocked it onto the green and escaped with par.
“That ball could have hit the tree and went anywhere,” McIlroy said.
CHASING KIRK: Kirk went one nine-hole stretch making only one par. That’s wasn’t bad, considering five of them were birdies.
Given his low-key nature to just about everything, it was easy to overlook him. But he has been playing well for much of the year, he lives in Atlanta and has plenty of local support and he’s only two shots out of the lead.
“There’s a lot less of people trying to look at their programs and figure out, ‘Who is this?’ So that’s nice to have people pulling for you and knowing who you are a little bit,” Kirk said.
RORY’S OUTLOOK: Even as the No. 1 player in the world, McIlroy might feel the least amount of pressure. After all, he already has two majors and a World Golf Championship title this year. Who at East Lake wouldn’t trade a season for that?
“I’m going into this week with nothing to lose,” McIlroy said. “I’m the one that’s got the two majors this year. I’m the one that’s had the great season. Those are the guys that are trying to cap off a great season for themselves. No matter what happens over the weekend, it’s going to be OK. But I still want to win this thing.”
RYDER CUP OUTLOOK: The good news for the Americans? Of the 13 players still under par at East Lake, 10 are Americans.
But that should give Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson any great comfort. Of those 10 Americans, only three are on the Ryder Cup team — Jim Furyk and Rickie Fowler are four shots behind. Matt Kuchar is seven back.
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