DUBLIN, Ohio – Mark Horton is the Billy Beane of professional golf, without the Middle America street cred that comes when they cast Brad Pitt to play you in a major motion picture.
The 2011 film “Moneyball,” starring Pitt and Jonah Hill, was a breakthrough account of how the Oakland Athletics found success in the margins. In a salary-cap sport with a small-market team, Beane won in the numbers, exploiting market inefficiencies and, frankly, being smarter than the competition.
Horton’s mathematical magic isn’t impacted by a salary cap or a limited payroll. For the no-nonsense Englishman, the only limitations are in the numbers, which in professional golf have been comically ignored.
What exactly Horton provides to his players is very much a mystery. He is intentionally vague when asked specifics. No reason to give the product away. But the results are impossible to ignore.
Last week, Sam Burns rallied from seven strokes behind world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler to win the Charles Schwab Challenge. On Sunday at the Memorial, Billy Horschel rolled to a four-stroke victory. Both study at the lectern of Horton.
In the most esoteric of terms, Horton provides his players with a statistical snapshot of every PGA Tour course – where to miss, where to be aggressive, where to score and where to succeed. He provides weekly data using historical statistics for every course, which is intensely detailed, and he applies it to the individual player.
“From a golf course standpoint, just for this week, for example, when I played here in the past, I have not hit enough drivers. I always try to lay back a little bit,” Burns said last week at Colonial. “We talked about that early in the week; the advantage does not match up to laying back. You need to push it around this golf course.
“Even if it was uncomfortable or whatever it was, we just tried to hit the correct shots at the right times and tried to execute as best as possible.”
Convincing Burns to lean into his power advantage seems obvious, but it’s always a balancing act when it comes to Tour players. Famed swing coach Butch Harmon once figured that his most high-profile students listened to about 10% of what he told them. Horton is a numbers guy, and he gladly takes 10%.
“GIR [greens in regulation],” Horton responded when asked what he told Horschel this week about Muirfield Village. “Top-3 hardest course to scramble. Bunkers are the hardest.”
For Horton, the math for every course is simple. The tough part is finding the correct equation, which is his specialty. At Jack’s Place, that was hitting greens and when you didn’t find the putting surface, mitigate the mistake. But the number’s guru actually goes much deeper than that.
When Horton first started working with Horschel in 2014, it wasn’t market inefficiencies he discovered. It was weaknesses.
“Hortsy is unbelievable,” said Horschel, who closed with a 72 for his seventh Tour title at Muirfield Village. “He's very English and he's very blunt and we had a conversation before he joined my team about my record on the PGA Tour and things I didn't do well. He was very blunt on my short game - wasn't very good and I had stone hands.”
Tour players aren’t always the best at taking tough love, but for Horschel, the criticism resonated and he started to spend more time working on his short game and course management. Your champion was quick to point out he finished first in the field at Muirfield Village in scrambling, going 16-for-19 for the week.
For Horschel, and Horton’s other players, it’s exactly that type of insight that makes him so valuable. It’s probably not for every player, but for those who embrace order and a linier line of reasoning, it’s a welcome road map.
“He just tells me where I need to be on holes, what holes, where guys are making bogeys, where the birdies are coming from, perfect way for me to plot my way around the golf course,” Horschel said. “That's what I love to do. I love to put my ball here, put the ball there. And he backs me up with that data that he's given me for the last eight years.”
Horton first ventured out onto the Tour to work with Ian Poulter, and his list of clients expanded to include Brandt Snedeker and Henrik Stenson for a time, including during the Swede’s run to the FedExCup title in 2013. The next year, he helped Horschel collect the $10 million bonus and has been in high demand ever since.
Horschel’s victory Sunday at the Memorial, and Burns’ last week at Colonial, will only add to that lore, but for Horton, the numbers are just the start.
“He doesn't need to be on my team anymore. We have the data. I've been coming to all these events for so many years. I know how to plot my way around the golf course,” Horschel said. “But he's another safety blanket for me. When things aren't going very well, he looks at some stuff and he tells me, Hey, we need to do this better, we need to do that. He's English and he tells me very bluntly that I'm not doing things very well right now.”
If ever they produce golf’s version of “Moneyball,” Horton’s English-ness might make casting difficult, but may we suggest Daniel Craig in the leading role.