Viktor Hovland has arrived at just the right time.
In grinding toward its sweat-stained conclusion, this PGA Tour season landed at East Lake in Atlanta last week to both celebrate and coronate, to put an eight-figure punctuation point on a schedule that is still dealing with the aftershocks of the earth-shaking alliance with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund announced less than three months ago.
It is like a shadow on an otherwise clear and sunny day.
Enter Hovland, the 25-year-old Norwegian who still lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where he attended college and has found no good reason to leave, though his $18 million take from winning the FedEx Cup will afford him his choice of addresses when and if he decides to leave the American heartland.
Across this year but most profoundly over the two season-culminating events – the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship – Hovland delivered on the seeming inevitability of his immense talent.
Hovland also has what too many of his contemporaries lack: a natural inclination to smile.
There are times when Hovland looks like a toothpaste commercial, all incisors and bicuspids, and it’s magnetic. It’s something the PGA Tour is desperately short of at times.
Not Hovland. He projects a joy about what he does, even when it’s grinding and hard and frustrating. He has what can’t be bought, and it’s one of his greatest assets.
Though Hovland had won three PGA Tour events in his first two years as a professional, it wasn’t until this year that Hovland has shouldered his way into the Jon Rahm-Rory McIlroy-Scottie Scheffler orbit.
Hovland has gone from being one of the guys to being the guy, at least since the PGA Championship slipped his grasp at Oak Hill back in May when he plugged a fairway bunker shot into a grassy slope late in the final round, ultimately clearing the path for Brooks Koepka’s victory there.
A victory at the Memorial Tournament earned Hovland more than the treasured winner’s handshake with Jack Nicklaus. Hovland’s first three tour wins had come outside the continental United States, but winning at Muirfield Village against a stacked field shifted Hovland’s storyline.
“It felt like a major,” Hovland said that Sunday afternoon in Dublin, Ohio.
It also validated a subtle but substantial shift in Hovland’s playing style. He is blessed with supreme confidence that has teased him into trusting his talent, tempting him to fire at flags intentionally tucked into troublesome spots.
“I think just amassing really good experiences over the last year, being in contention, failing in contention, being in contention and succeeding in contention."
Hovland has learned – after being shown in a detailed statistical analysis by numbers guru Edoardo Molinari earlier this year – the value of occasional conservatism on the golf course. For all of his spectacular moments, Tiger Woods understood the value of playing away from flags at times. Hovland has learned that now.
It was Hovland’s long-time coach Joseph Mayo who pushed the issue earlier this year.
“He was like, Look, man, things are looking really good, but I would have a double bogey here or a double bogey there and it would just kind of mess up the whole tournament for me, or it would get me out of contention,” Hovland said
“He even said this while we were playing the Masters, while I’m in contention. It’s like, there’s something that’s missing. There’s something that’s not right. And in poker terms – we like to play a lot of poker – it’s like my frequencies are a little bit off. There's a certain percentage of the time you’re supposed to bet, you’re supposed to check raise, or you’re supposed to bluff.
“And basically there’s a certain percentage you’re supposed to short-side yourself. But basically, I was doing that way more than the average player.”
No one confused Hovland with Jordan Spieth around the greens, but his emphasis on improving his short game coupled with taking fewer chances has made a difference. He ranks 105th in strokes gained around the green – that’s not great – but compared to 191st last year and 168th three years ago, it helps explain where Hovland finds himself today.
Similar to how Billy Horschel, Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Cantlay capped big years with big-bang finishes in the playoffs, Hovland has found his moment.
His final-round 61 to win the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields displayed a rare brilliance. There’s the old saying that golf is not a game of perfect, but Hovland came pretty close in shooting 28 on his final nine holes.
He rolled into East Lake on a high, started two strokes behind FedEx Cup leader Scottie Scheffler and then separated himself enough to make Sunday feel like a coronation parade.
When the Ryder Cup matches are played in Rome next month, Hovland likely will play all five matches for captain Luke Donald, whose team looks far more imposing now than it did six months ago. With Hovland, Rahm, McIlroy, Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, Matt Fitzpatrick, Sepp Straka and Shane Lowry on the roster, the Europeans look formidable.
None more so than Hovland, who has found a personal peace in recent months.
“I think just amassing really good experiences over the last year, being in contention, failing in contention, being in contention and succeeding in contention. I think that’s been really cool to just try to learn from any experience, whether it’s not finishing well on a Sunday or what happened, what went wrong, what can I learn from it. I feel like I’ve used those opportunities to just get better the next time around,” Hovland said.
With a smile.
Top: Viktor Hovland's smile is a fixture on the PGA Tour.
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