An optimized Viktor Hovland could be Europe’s secret weaponThe analytical Norwegian is a Ryder Cup rookie in name only
September 19, 2021
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Viktor Hovland's best shots of his career
Every so often, Europe introduces a Ryder Cup rookie who looks like he was born for this. Sergio Garcia. Rory McIlroy. Jon Rahm. This year it’s smiling Norwegian Viktor Hovland, a poker-playing math-and-science disciple who also has a fiery side.
At 24, Hovland is a two-time PGA TOUR winner who just finished fifth in the FedExCup. One of the best drivers in the game, he has climbed to 13th in the Official World Golf Ranking. Of all the Ryder Cup rookies at Whistling Straits – nine total – Hovland may look the least like one.
“I adapt to my environment very quickly,” he told the podcast Better Than I Found It.
Added his caddie, Shay Knight, “He is absolutely ready for this.”
Yes, we noticed.
He is also a consummate team player with a sparkling match-play record. How sparkling? Alan Bratton, his old coach at Oklahoma State, has run some numbers.
Hovland went a combined 6-0 for the Cowboys in the 2017, ’18 and ’19 NCAA Championships.
Impressed? Just wait. Also in 2018, he went 4-1 at the Big 12 Match Play Championship, 6-0 in winning the U.S. Amateur, and 2-0 at the East Lake Cup. That’s a combined 18-1 over six events. He needed just 104 holes to win the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, the third-fewest for a winner under the current format that debuted in 1979, and his 7-and-6 quarterfinal victory matched the largest win ever in that round.
“He likes playing for something bigger than himself,” said Bratton, who first ran across Hovland at the European Boys Team Championship, where he liked Norway’s team chemistry. “He’s confident, and that confidence wears on other people. He’s just a winner.”
Indeed, the last time we saw a European rookie smiling this much would be Garcia in his Ryder Cup debut in ’99. He has since become Europe’s leading points scorer (25.5).
“He's a wonderful player,” McIlroy said of Hovland, “and I think there's a few guys lining up to have the chance to play with him in the team formats the first couple of days.”
Added world No. 1 Rahm: “He’s an absolute ball-striking machine.”
On the Range
Viktor Hovland's pre-round warm-up routine
Fire and ice
Hovland was somewhat doughy as a junior. It’s hard to believe, because today he’s a chiseled 5 feet, 10 inches, and his powerful lower body brings to mind an NHL hockey player.
“I’ve been trying to get stronger for a year,” he told PGATOUR.com. “I think the lower body is just more genetic; you know, my mom is from Russia, so I’ve got some Russian genes in there. We’re not like most Scandinavians who are tall and skinny. We’re shorter and stockier.”
The physical transformation has been of a piece with the rest of his journey.
Hovland will be the first from his country to play in the Ryder Cup, and during his appearance on Better Than I Found It, one of the podcast hosts, Mikkel Bjerch-Andresen, a fellow Norwegian, crowed that the country had eclipsed 100,000 golfers.
Working around the sport’s novelty status, Hovland learned the swing from instruction he found on the internet. He hit balls in an expansive soccer field near his house.
Although he played soccer and did taekwondo, he began to focus on golf at 11 or 12. He found coaches, practiced hard, and shot 26 under to win the Norwegian Boys Championship at 16. Runner-up Kristian Johannessen, who now plays the European Tour, was five back.
Hovland’s current instructor is Jeff Smith, a former professional poker player who was based in Las Vegas and now is the lead instructor at Spring Creek Ranch in Memphis, Tennessee. They talk mostly golf, but poker figures into their discussions, too.
“The No. 1 skill in poker is to process a lot of information in a short period of time, and he can do that,” Smith said. “Viktor could become a world-class poker player in time.
“He’s really analytical. A lot of people will ask questions and not really want to know the answer. He really wants the truth about why a thing works a certain way. Sometimes he’ll ask a question he knows the answer to; he will keep you on your toes as an instructor.”
Hovland thinks of himself as a data guy who tries to use his passion to his advantage. “The more you bring it back to science and have the math behind you,” he said, “the better your decisions.”
As for his fiery blowup at THE NORTHERN TRUST, where he broke his putter in anger, he added, “That’s the first time I’ve ever broken a club, yes. It will never happen again.”
He knows anger doesn’t aid in optimal decision-making.Viktor Hovland has hit the ground running to start his PGA TOUR career and qualified for his first Ryder Cup. (Keyur khamar/PGA TOUR)
Driven toward excellence
It’s no secret where Hovland has an edge.
“He’s one of the best drivers of the ball in the world,” Smith said. “He knows it’s a weapon and can take more risk there because he has what we call an equity advantage over the field.”
If you want to be one of the best in the world, Smith added, you must somehow gain one and a half strokes a round, total, on the field. “Viktor gains 0.7 strokes off the tee,” he said, “so he’s already halfway there with the driver. I don’t think there are 10 people on TOUR who average 300-plus yards off the tee and hit 60 percent of the fairways.”
(There were in fact 13 last season, including Hovland, Rahm, Garcia and Paul Casey for Team Europe, and FedExCup champ Patrick Cantlay and Scottie Scheffler for Team USA.)
The first time he plays a course, Hovland hits driver on every hole. Then he dials back as needed.
He comes to Whistling Straits on the heels of a fifth-place finish in the FedExCup.
Pete Dye courses, he said, “usually fit my game.”
So does Karsten Creek, Oklahoma State’s home course, where Hovland plays when he’s home in Stillwater. Yes, his heart remains with OSU golf, but even here he is making a strategic play.
“He does it to stay sharp,” Bratton said. “He doesn’t want to let our guys beat him.”Viktor Hovland says he's loving every second of it, and feels his game is trending in the right direction. (Keyur Khamar/ Getty images)
Regrouping for Ryder debut
Smith, who also helps a handful of other TOUR pros, said he wouldn’t use the word passionate for Hovland as much as competitive.
His growing legion of fans? They are passionate.
After winning the European Tour’s BMW International Open in Munich in late June, Hovland returned to Norway, where his name showed up on the tee sheet at a course outside Oslo. A screen shot of the tee sheet went viral, and hundreds of fans, some of them driving more than seven hours, flocked to the course to see their hero and take selfies.
“I probably shouldn't have had my buddies put my name on the online kind of portal that you put your names on to register for events or rounds,” Hovland said, “but I didn't think too much of it.”
It was a rare misstep. Hovland also admitted to fatigue at the recent BMW PGA in England.
“Definitely feeling it,” he said, “just moving around all the different time zones, but I’ve been loving every second of it, and I feel like my game is trending in the right direction.”
And rest assured, he’s not slowing down. “He flew back from Europe and within two hours of landing he was on the range at Karsten Creek, hitting balls,” Bratton said.
To say Hovland is excited would be an understatement. He watched the 2012 Ryder Cup with his father, Harald, in their apartment in Oslo. Europe trailed 10-6 but won a thriller, 14 1/2 to 13 1/2.
“It would’ve been 11, 12 o’clock at night,” he said. “We were going nuts.”
If the neighbors wondered about the ruckus, perhaps they’ll begin to understand soon. Maybe even this week. They’ll turn on their TVs late at night and see Norway’s newest sporting icon, fiery, icy Viktor Hovland, a fully-optimized ballstriking machine doing his thing and making some noise a world away.