News & Opinion

Viktor Hovland wins with grins on PGA Tour

The pride of Norwegian men’s golf – OK, so it’s a very small fraternity – just might get the last laugh, if his play since turning professional in late 2019 is any indication

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Viktor Hovland is one of those young golfers who always seems to have a smile on his face. A glued-on, affixed perma-grin. He’s a young man who has a beautiful knack to find the humorous side in so many things that he encounters in his day. And now Hovland has plenty to smile about.

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Viktor Hovland wins in only his 12th start as a professional on the PGA Tour.

Hovland, 22, captured the Puerto Rico Open on Sunday, an opposite-field event contested in tropical Rio Grande while the PGA Tour’s Rich and Mighty were partaking in a no-cut, where’d-you-park-your-jet $10.5 million run for the riches at the WGC Mexico Championships. Hovland’s victory was historic: He became the first player from Norway to win on the PGA Tour. Understandably, his country is known for skiing and winter sports more than golf, so this is a pretty exciting development back home. (If you haven’t heard/seen the emotion-fueled Norwegian TV call on Hovland’s winning 30-footer on the 72nd hole, it’s worth your time.)

Scoff if you’d like at any player winning any opposite-field event these days – with the world’s top competitors playing elsewhere, some might consider it a Korn Ferry Tour event on steroids. But winning, anywhere, at any level in professional golf, is a difficult thing to do. A co-leader after 36 holes, Hovland shot 64-70 on the weekend and edged veteran Josh Teater. Deservedly, many perks came with the victory: a two-year exemption, starts in the $15 million Players Championship and PGA Championship, and a leap to 60th (from 102) in the Official World Golf Ranking. The upcoming WGC Match Play and Masters (top 50 as of March 30) are now in play.

Beyond all of that, here’s what’s really impressive: Hovland won in his 12th PGA Tour start as a professional. His former Oklahoma State teammate Matthew Wolff won in his third Tour start (2019 3M Open), at age 20; and Collin Morikawa, perhaps with the best pure action of the three, won the Barracuda Championship last summer, at 22. All turned pro in summer 2019, and now all have their PGA Tour cards through at least 2021.

So much for heading to autumn rookie ball in Arizona. Ah, kids these days …

“They’re all pretty fearless, aren’t they?” said Pete Cowen, a world-class coach from England and one of golf’s most astute observers, from the Honda Classic on Wednesday. “I watched Viktor play in the Middle East. Aggressive. Fearless. He’s going to take shots on. That putt he made [at the 18th hole] wasn’t going to be short, was it? He’s probably out of the playoff if it doesn’t go in, but he took it on. He had a chance to win, and he took it.”

There once existed a certain level of intimidation for young players headed out on the PGA Tour. Just keeping one’s card was special, and they tried their best to stay out of the way. Winning golf tournaments, for most, was something well off in the distance to work toward. No longer is that the case.

Rickie Fowler, another Oklahoma State product, has been an interested onlooker, already having forged relationships with Hovland and Wolff. Wolff lives nearby in south Florida.

“It’s been fun to watch,” Fowler said. “I feel like in a way they play two different kinds of golf, two different swings. But they’re good at what they do. You look at Collin Morikawa [as well]. These kids are another step above where myself and some other guys coming out of college were, just because I think the talent level and competition [at the amateur and college levels] keeps getting better and better. They’re just more and more prepared to come out here and compete.”

Hovland has taken a different path than most, considering that he hails from a country where golf is played only about six months of the year. (Cowen said he tried to run a golf academy there but shuttered it about 10 years ago.) Harald Hovland, Viktor’s father, was an engineer who spent time in St. Louis. He passed a driving range each day on his way to work, and one day veered his car into the lot to give golf a try. Back home in Norway, Harald passed along the game to his son when Viktor was only 3 or 4. Viktor played other sports into middle school, but eventually wanted to focus on golf. He’d work on his game inside a covered dome that was a converted airplane hangar, showing up every day to smash golf balls into a net about 70 yards from the tee.

“Better than nothing,” said Hovland, that familiar grin emerging.

Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton flew to Europe in 2013 to watch Norway’s Kristoffer Ventura at the European Team Boys Championships in Scotland, where he first saw Hovland, two years younger than Ventura and also from Oslo. Hovland clearly had something special. Bratton went back to watch him in Oslo a year later, and in Finland in 2015 before OSU signed him in the spring of 2016. The recruiting work paid off. Hovland helped the Cowboys win an NCAA title in 2018, and then, with Bratton on the bag, captured the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach.

Hovland’s English is pretty strong, picked up in large part through watching historical American documentaries. The last two years, he has been making history of his own. In his U.S. Amateur victory, he tied the record for fewest holes played (104) by a champion. (He won the final over Devon Bling, 6 and 5, and played Pebble’s 18th hole only once, in the 36-hole final.) He was low amateur at the Masters (T-32) and U.S. Open (T-12), last accomplished by Matt Kuchar in 1998. After turning pro last summer, Hovland posted 19 consecutive rounds in the 60s, a streak not accomplished on the PGA Tour since 1983.

Hovland joins Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and David Gossett as the only players since 1990 to win the U.S. Amateur and also win on the PGA Tour by age 23. Also, this is historic: Hovland might be the only 22-year-old on the planet who doesn’t own a Twitter account. Back home, a reporter told him Wednesday that they are calling him Twitterless Viktor.

“I got so many text messages [Sunday], I couldn’t even respond to half of them,” he said. “If I got Twitter, that would just make it even worse.”

Henrik Bjornstad (58 career starts, one top 10), who only recently returned to golf after an extended layoff, represented Norway on the PGA Tour about a decade ago. Hovland knows Bjornstad, but had to get creative in finding golf role models, taking bits and pieces that he liked from different players. Tiger Woods was a huge influence on him. Hovland said he always liked the flair and style in Sergio Garcia’s game.

Hovland obviously learned to embrace honesty along the way. Asked right after his victory about the sloppy triple bogey he’d made on the 11th hole in Puerto Rico on Sunday, Hovland laughed and said, “I just suck at chipping!”

Hovland, who has a U.S. base in his college town in Stillwater, Okla., will play Honda, Bay Hill and the Players. If he’s in the top 64 in the world, he also can enter the WGC Match Play, competing in a format that he loves. Good results in the weeks ahead can pile up world-ranking points that can get him back to Augusta National. His finish as low amateur earned him a seat in Butler Cabin on Sunday evening alongside Woods, who celebrated his fifth green jacket. Which, of course, was a scene that left Hovland smiling.

“He always looks so happy,” said TV analyst and major champion Paul Azinger, who will call Honda for Golf Channel and NBC this week. Azinger loves Hovland’s wedge game, and likens his wedge prowess and cool demeanor to that of Tom Kite, who once won a U.S. Open at Pebble. “He’s Kite with a better smile,” Azinger said. “Nothing ever bothered Kite that much. It doesn’t look like anything bothers Viktor Hovland, and he smiles. He ‘Matt Kuchars’ it to death.”

Certainly Augusta (and Butler Cabin) would be a destination where Hovland would love to return one day very soon, but for now, he’s just learning what he can and taking it all in. There is a lot to like about this kid, and a good deal for him to enjoy. A year ago, he, Wolff and Morikawa were sitting in college lecture halls. Today, all three are PGA Tour champions. That’s certainly something to celebrate and savor.

“Honestly, when we were in college and looking forward to turning pro, that was definitely our plans,” Hovland said. “We were obviously dreaming about it, but for all of us to have won within a year, it’s pretty remarkable. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s a pretty crazy ride.”

Wintry Norway to the PGA Tour? That is not a path that’s worn. Crazy ride? You bet. And we’re still at the starting line.

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