Viktor Hovland’s ascension continues at PGA Championship
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Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Viktor Hovland was built for major championships. It was obvious to even the casual observer. His combination of power and accuracy, which few players can match, is ideal when the courses are toughest and margins are slim.
That is why Hovland’s lack of major success was so perplexing. He finished 12th in the U.S. Open four years ago in his final tournament as an amateur, but he had not topped that result when he arrived at last year’s Open Championship at St. Andrews (though he had matched it once).
The missing piece was not physical. It was mental. Crisp ball-striking isn’t the only requirement at major championships. Clear thinking is, as well. From Ben Hogan to Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, many of the game’s best players also have been its best thinkers.
Hovland said he was “young and stupid” earlier in his career. The inevitable maturation – he is still just 25 years old – and his analytical approach has helped him take advantage of his talents when it matters most. Hovland has been in contention in the past three major championships, taking steps towards that first title that many consider inevitable.
His closest call came Sunday in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, where Hovland was not fazed by Brooks Koepka’s hot start. Hovland had a chance to win the Wanamaker Trophy until a costly mistake at the 16th hole. He eventually tied for second with Scottie Scheffler, two strokes behind Koepka, who won his fifth major championship.
Viktor Hovland’s interview after Round 4 of the PGA Championship
The pain of the loss was evident in Hovland’s post-round interview. He is known for a wide smile and self-effacing humor, but there is an intensity underneath.
“It sucks right now,” he said, “but it is really cool to see that things are going in the right direction. If I just keep taking care of my business and just keep working on what I've been doing, I think we're going to get one of these soon.”
Hovland’s recent run in the majors began last July at St. Andrews, where Hovland shared the 54-hole lead with Rory McIlroy. The intense focus on McIlroy’s attempt to win at the Home of Golf overshadowed Hovland’s 74, which left him six back of winner Cameron Smith.
Hovland again shot 74 in the final round of this year’s Masters. He finished seventh after starting the final round in third, three shots behind Koepka.
Hovland was in the final group with another four-time major winner Sunday at Oak Hill, starting the final round of the PGA Championship one behind Koepka.
Viktor Hovland sinks birdie putt at the PGA Championship
Hovland wasn’t fazed when Koepka made three consecutive birdies early in the round. Hovland made back-to-back birdies of his own and got up-and-down for par multiple times, displaying a short game that belies the usual scouting report on him, to match Koepka’s 34 on the front nine.
Hovland pulled within a shot of Koepka with a birdie on the par-5 13th and still was a stroke back with three holes remaining. He drove into a fairway bunker at 16, though, and hit his second shot thin, his ball slamming into the face of the bunker. It led to a double-bogey that, combined with Koepka’s birdie, left Hovland four back with two holes remaining. It was a heart-breaking finish to a hard-fought day. Still, there was progress. Hovland rose to sixth in the world ranking.
“He’s putting himself in position, right?” said Rory McIlroy, Hovland’s teammate on the European Ryder Cup team. “Jack Nicklaus won 18 majors, but he finished second 19 times. So it's all about putting yourself in position and giving yourself chances. … If Viktor keeps doing the same things and working hard -- I've seen him the last couple of nights, he's been the last one here working on his game. --one will fall into his lap.”
Viktor Hovland gets up-and-down for birdie at the PGA Championship
An improved short game has been crucial to Hovland’s progress, but he also said the secret this week was to “wear out the center of the green” instead of being overly aggressive with approach shots. He did that, finishing first in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green and third in greens hit. The change in course management is the fruit of work with Edoardo Molinari, the same player and stats consultant who helped Matt Fitzpatrick win last year’s U.S. Open.
Aiming at flags led to too many bogeys, especially with short-irons in his hand. “You just can't do that in major championship golf,” Hovland said.
Molinari was an engineering major who won the U.S. Amateur, three DP World Tour titles and played in the 2010 Ryder Cup. Molinari called Hovland “very motivated and willing to keep improving.”
“With players like him the margins are so small,” said Molinari, “that sometimes a few shots here and there and some small adjustments can make a huge difference.”
They’ve turned Hovland into a consistent major contender, a role that’s long been expected.
Sean Martin is a senior editor for the PGA TOUR. He is a 2004 graduate of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Attending a small school gave him a heart for the underdog, which is why he enjoys telling stories of golf's lesser-known players. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.