Hovland in position in Puerto Rico to join fellow phenoms with win
February 22, 2020
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
Viktor Hovland sinks birdie putt on No. 12 at Puerto Rico
Viktor Hovland didn’t shy away from all the hype. To be fair, it would be hard to avoid it in this modern day and age. The wave of expectation on his young shoulders after turning professional last summer was heavy, but the U.S. Amateur winner seemed to take it all in stride.
In fact, he almost seemed to thrive in it. The 22-year-old Norwegian joined Oklahoma State teammate Matthew Wolfe and Cal’s Collin Morikawa as youngsters with an immediate impact on the PGA TOUR, contending from the word go. A final round 67 at Pebble Beach in the U.S. Open introduced the smiling assassin to many fans in his final amateur start and then his play after it solidified him as a new favorite.
In his five professional starts, Hovland made all five cuts, finishing inside the top 16 of four of them, including finishing fourth at the Wyndham Championship. His last 13 rounds of the season were in the 60s.
While Wolfe and Morikawa made a heavier splash by winning and jumping straight into the big time, Hovland did everything but win. He might not have made enough points to jump straight onto the TOUR, but he did get into the Korn Ferry Tour Finals and promptly finished T11 and T2 to secure his place amongst the big guns this season with relative ease.
It seemed just a matter of moments before we would see him hoisting a trophy, a thought that a couple of decades ago would seem ludicrous. But the modern world of golf throws young stars at us on an almost endless production line, and this was the next one we expected to cash in.
After extending his streak of rounds in the 60s to a record 19 and grabbing a top 10 out of the gate at A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier, there was no reason to dampen the expectations. But things did slowdown from that point.
His first missed cut came in November at the Mayakoba Golf Classic and after a trip to the Middle East to play on the European Tour. Early this year, he missed another weekend at the Waste Management Phoenix Open before a reasonable T38 at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
The expectations had started to gnaw at the youngster now and a little bit of annoyance was entering his game. Frustrations were starting to try to surface, which is not ideal given his best golf is played when he’s focused – but clearly having fun.
So this week’s Puerto Rico Open could not have come at a better time for Hovland. As the games top stars play in the World Golf Championships – Mexico Championship, including Morikawa, Hovland had a chance to head to the island paradise and reset. Smell the roses so to speak a little outside the spotlight and get back to what works best. In other words, find the smiling assassin once more.
And so far so good as rounds of 68-66-64 have him at 18 under and sitting atop the leaderboard by a shot over Martin Laird with a round to play. The key was his patience. Early in his third round, Hovland’s ball-striking was at its clinical best, but a few good chances for birdie fell by the wayside on the greens.
Instead of getting frustrated with the abovementioned expectations, Hovland kept his head high and went about picking the course apart. Five back nine birdies, including three in his last four holes, set up his 54-hole lead.
“I've failed a lot at (keeping my composure),” a frank Hovland said post round, also admitting he and caddie Shay Knight had pinpointed it as an issue.
“I haven't been playing as good as I was this week, but I just put a lot of pressure on myself. Whenever I missed a putt, I let it really get to me. But this week I know I'm playing good, so a couple misses here and there aren't really going to kill me.”
Of course after signing his card the talk of expectations for Sunday ramped up again. The last five players to win on the PGA TOUR at age 22 are Morikawa, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama… not a bad crew.
“Hopefully I just continue doing what I have been doing the first three days here. It would be unbelievable to have won on the TOUR already, but I'm just worried about tomorrow,’ he said.
“Hopefully I can hit some good shots and make some putts. I'm just trying to have some fun tomorrow and see how it goes.”
But of course no amount of bunting questions back can keep out the obvious. A win on Sunday would change his trajectory very quickly.
“It would mean a lot. It would put me in a way different position compared to what I am now,” he admitted. “I've gotten invitations here and there, which has been great, but I would like to play my way into tournaments. (A win)… that's a very good steppingstone.”
Laird’s Saturday 63 has him just one back while Josh Teater will start two off the pace. The rest of the chasing pack start at least five shots adrift. You might expect Scotland’s Laird would have an advantage given his three previous TOUR wins. But the last came in 2013 and he sits back in 183rd on the FedExCup so he also brings nerves to Sunday.
A pair of eagles helped Laird tie the Grand Reserve Country Club course record Saturday as he hit all 14 fairways for the 11th time in his career to go with 17 of 18 greens in regulation.
“Obviously (a win) would mean a lot. It seems like a while since the last one, but I've been working hard and it's paying off so far and my game's really been coming around the last month or so,” Laird said. “So I came in here feeling good about everything and obviously played well the first three rounds, but there's a lot of golf to go, so just keep focusing on what we've been doing and keep firing tomorrow and see what happens.”
Whatever does happen, one thing is for sure. Expectations are sure to rise.