Hovland delivers on expectations in Puerto Rico
February 23, 2020
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
Viktor Hovland grabs first win at Puerto Rico
When Viktor Hovland chipped in for a birdie on the 10th hole of his final round of the Puerto Rico Open, his lead stretched to three shots. His trademark grin was wider than ever and the hardcore golf fans all over the world were nodding. This is exactly what was supposed to happen. Perhaps it should have already happened.
Expectations on the former amateur standout have been sky high since day one of his professional career. Before turning pro, some of his achievements included winning the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, being part of a victorious NCAA National Championship team at Oklahoma State, reaching world No. 1 on the amateur rankings and claiming low amateur honors at both the Masters and U.S. Open.
Playing on sponsor invites last summer, Hovland made the cut in each of his first five PGA TOUR starts as a pro, finishing inside the top 16 four times, including finishing solo fourth at the Wyndham Championship. His last 13 rounds of the season were in the 60s.
After narrowly missing out on earning his PGA TOUR card via non-member points, he headed to the Korn Ferry Tour Finals and promptly finished T11-T2 to secure his place on TOUR with relative ease. And then, as a rookie on TOUR, he extended his consecutive rounds in the 60s streak to a record 19, in addition to opening his season with a top-10.
So despite being just 22 and in his 17th PGA TOUR start this week in Puerto Rico, many were asking why he hadn’t already won on the TOUR like his Oklahoma State teammate Matthew Wolfe and fellow young gun Collin Morikawa. This sort of thinking is easy to get caught up in, but it's a terribly unfair expectation. Winning on the PGA TOUR is not easy – just ask Josh Teater, the 40-year-old journeyman in his 196th start who was trying to reel Hovland in for his own maiden triumph.
So just as it was setting up to look easy for Hovland, it wasn’t. On the par-3 11th, Hovland hit a poor tee shot that flared right in the wind. He then chunked two chips in a row, and after finally finding the putting surface, missed a short putt. In the blink of an eye, he was writing a six on his card, a “train wreck” he called it, and the triple-bogey dropped him back into a tie for the lead.
It was a critical junction in his young career, particularly given what he was using the week to focus on. Hovland and his caddie Shay Knight had been cognizant of the expectations of others creeping into his attitude. With results fading a bit of late, every missed putt was affecting his mindset a little more than it should. After all, he was supposed to be contending every week, right? But the pair had highlighted the issue and were focused on addressing it.
“There are so many expectations on him, which is tough, but we knew when he was just playing on exemptions he was just out there having fun and you could see that and feel that and he was playing great,” Knight said. “And then he got his card and I think started to try and fill those expectations right away and he was getting very stressed and he wasn't himself.
“So we had a chat about it a couple of weeks ago and I said 'It's a long year and it is going to be a rollercoaster, so you just need to stay positive.' That's exactly what he did this week. His attitude was unbelievable and I think that was the real difference maker.”
Indeed, after the blemish, Hovland knuckled down. Teater sensed his big chance to break through and birdied the par-5 15th up ahead of the young Norwegian to take the lead. Knowing he needed to match it, Hovland’s approach shot came up short and right of the green in the rough. He promptly chipped in for eagle to take the lead back outright.
Viktor Hovland chips in for eagle at Puerto Rico
But Teater wasn’t done. He threw a dart into the 17th and converted for birdie to draw level again, then gave himself a good look at another birdie on the par-5 18th, only to see it just come up just short. It meant Hovland could win in regulation with a birdie on the 72nd hole. His wedge approach, though, was not the greatest, finding the green some 30-feet or more from the cup.
“I was just thinking about all the other putts that I've putted throughout the round and I've pretty much left every single putt short,” Hovland would say. “So I was like 'Okay, I'm not going to hit this putt short.' I had a good line on it and I just whacked it. Thankfully, when it was five, six feet out, I knew it was looking pretty good.”
The ball hit the back of the hole with pace and disappeared. Just like that, all the expectations had been delivered on and the PGA TOUR had its very first champion from Norway. He joined Morikawa, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama as the last players to win at just 22 years of age.
“It's hard to deal with the expectations because they're usually a lot higher than kind of what are realistic. If you would ask me a year ago if I would have won a PGA TOUR event in my 17th start as a 22‑year‑old, I mean, that would be nuts,” Hovland admits.
“As you start thinking about expectations and the noise that's outside the course that's when you start to put more pressure on yourself and you can easily kind of forget who you are. Obviously, triple bogey is not what you're looking for, but I'd done a really good job this week of not getting super mad. The last few weeks I've kind of been struggling with my game a little bit and I let small mistakes really get to me a lot more and this week I've been really ice cold.
“Even after that triple-bogey I thought, 'Well, crap, that's not ideal,' but I knew that if I just played well on the back nine… if I make two or three birdies coming in, I can be right in it. When I passed 14 tee and saw the leaderboard and we were tied, I wasn't thinking about that triple-bogey at all.”
And it is that attitude, together with proof of his execution at Coco Beach, that will no doubt raise those expectations once again. He is now exempt into the upcoming PLAYERS Championship, along the PGA Championship, and his world ranking will move towards the top-60 in the world to bring the World Golf Championships-Dell Technology Match Play into the mix if he continues playing well.
“He's an unbelievable talent who does have a good attitude as a whole and while sometimes he loses focus on that this week just shows him what a positive attitude can do,” Knight says. “It shows him, as he goes down the road, exactly what he needs to do to win golf tournaments. Champions are the ones that put mistakes behind them and come out the other side. He did that today and that is why he is holding the trophy.”
At the risk of adding to the expectations, it likely will be the first of many trophies he holds aloft.