Viktor Hovland may be golf’s next great star

In Rome, the room resounded with laughter. Question after question had been directed at Rory McIlroy in the aftermath of Team Europe’s triumph in the Ryder Cup last weekend. McIlroy, as usual, found himself in the familiar role of being the center of attention. Finally, a reporter seized the microphone and proposed a change of focus. “I have a question for Jon,” the reporter declared, grabbing Jon Rahm’s attention, who amusingly pretended to snap awake.

“About time,” McIlroy quipped, shifting his gaze to Rahm and then back to the assembly of reporters, his tone indignant, “he’s only the best player in the world!”

Including Viktor Hovland: A Key Player in the Mix

Laughter rippled through the room, including from Viktor Hovland. However, amidst the merriment, the irony was palpable – the young man who was presently outperforming everyone in the world of golf was seemingly overlooked. Viktor Hovland received no attention during the press conference that lasted 27 minutes. Not a single question was directed his way, and his name was scarcely mentioned.

This oversight persisted despite Hovland’s remarkable contribution to Team Europe’s resounding 16 1/2 — 11 1/2 victory over the Americans. He was one of only two Europeans to compete in all five matches, amassing 3 1/2 points. His only setback occurred in a Saturday afternoon fourball match when his partner, Ludvig Åberg, struggled to keep the ball in play. Hovland’s prowess was further evident when he decisively defeated Collin Morikawa in their Sunday singles match. Notably, he also held the title of the 2023 FedEx Cup champion.

It’s important to acknowledge that Hovland is on the cusp of becoming the next great star in professional golf.

The key takeaway from this Ryder Cup and the preceding two months in professional golf is this: golf welcomes numerous young talents with potential, but only a select few realize their full potential. Hovland is solidifying his status as one of those exceptional individuals who follow through on their promise, much like McIlroy and Rahm. This is where Hovland is destined to make his mark.

This is not mere sportswriter exaggeration; it’s a fact that European Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald discreetly highlighted last week. Reflecting on the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, Donald remembered that Hovland had been one of the best ball-strikers but had struggled with short-game issues in the 2021 Ryder Cup. Fast forward two years to Rome, and Hovland’s short-game statistics were the best on the team. It turns out he possesses a quality shared only by the golfing greats.

Donald remarked, “He’s diligently worked on his weaknesses, and they have transformed into strengths.”

It’s high time to redirect our focus towards Hovland, to delve deeper into his journey, and perhaps, inquire how he has achieved such remarkable proficiency.

For those who are observant, it’s evident what lies ahead.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Donald emphasized, “if he goes on to win several major championships in the near future.

“Hello, suuurrrrr! How are you?!”

That’s Viktor Hovland’s way of greeting you. Each word he utters invites you to join him for a drink.

We had a phone conversation a few weeks before the Ryder Cup. Viktor Hovland was back in Oklahoma, his home since 2016, when he attended Oklahoma State University, leading the team to a national title and amassing a collection of individual awards. Today, Hovland could choose to live anywhere, but he prefers Stillwater, Oklahoma. Why? Because he’s Viktor Hovland, and he’s delightfully unique. He exudes a presence – broad and handsome, with shoulders like a bricklayer. Yet, he’s entirely unthreatening, with a giant smile that makes him endearing. He laughs so heartily that he often has to close his eyes. Everyone loves him; he’s like some kind of Norwegian Marty McFly.

I was curious about how someone who appears as laid-back as a conscientious objector became such a fierce competitor. Viktor Hovland isn’t just an elite golfer; he’s an elite winner, and there’s a distinction. He won the Norwegian Amateur at the tender age of 16, a mere five years after picking up the game. Four years later, he claimed the U.S. Amateur title. In 2019, he turned professional and has since won six times on the PGA Tour, including three prestigious victories this season – the Memorial, the BMW, and the Tour Championship. So, what’s his secret?

“Well, I’m trying to psychoanalyze myself,” he said, with pauses and starts, as he contemplated. “I think I try to be a bit stoic about things. Clearly, I’m competitive; I want to beat people. But I don’t need to go out of my way to show you that I beat you. It’s more like, ‘Oh, I made another putt. Four birdies in a row!’ I let my game speak for itself, and yes, I smile when I’m doing it.”

This is what makes watching ViktorHovland play golf so captivating. He’s oddly indifferent yet calculating, full-tilt yet composed. Have you ever seen him take a practice swing with a driver? While most professionals execute a breezy rehearsal behind the ball, Hovland takes two breakneck lashes. It looks as though he’s gearing up to hit a five-run homer. Then he steps in and smashes the ball, seemingly unfazed by anything or anyone.

On the Sunday following his singles victory over Morikawa, Hovland watched Justin Rose’s attempt to close out a match against Patrick Cantlay on the 17th tee. Rose’s caddie, Mark Fulcher, asked a volunteer to lower a sign that was casting a shadow about 10 feet behind Rose. Rose then noticed that Fulcher himself was creating a small shadow and requested him to move. Fulcher obliged and knelt down. Behind the tee, watching these subtle details, ViktorHovland could hardly contain his laughter.

Viktor Hovland’s version of nuance? On the previous day, at Marco Simone’s seventh hole, he arrived at the tee with music blaring in the background and seemed oblivious to it. He teed up, hit a perfect shot, returned to his bag, and then appeared to notice the song playing. The lyrics? “Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated…”

Sometimes when I’m in that zone, it just feels easy,” Viktor Hovland explained weeks earlier. “I’m hitting the shots close to the pin. When I’m standing over the ball, I feel it going into the hole, instead of thinking, ‘Don’t miss this,’ or ‘Don’t hit it there.’ It just happens.”

This is how Hovland became the embodiment of the European Ryder Cup performance, one that deserved every accolade – historic, epic, and ruthless.

Viktor Hovland

Viktor Hovland, right, had a 3-0-1 record in the 2023 Ryder Cup, making it clear he was one of Europe’s Big 3. (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

In the first session, Hovland played in the second group, and his remarkable chip-in from off the first green sent Marco Simone into an early frenzy. Viktor Hovland became the catalyst for a perfect 4-0-0 first session for Team Europe. In the afternoon, alongside Tyrrell Hatton, they erased a 2-down deficit with just five holes to go against the formidable pair of Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. The 18th hole provided a dramatic moment when Viktor Hovland’s 26-foot birdie putt hung at the lip, seemingly suspended in mid-air, stealing the collective breath of the onlookers before gracefully dropping into the hole. The ensuing jubilation was nothing short of hysteria.

Then came Saturday morning, with Viktor Hovland and Åberg facing off against Scottie Scheffler and Brooks Koepka. Ryder Cup history had seen players face tough losses before, but what transpired was unprecedented. Hovland and Åberg left the world’s No. 1-ranked player, Scottie Scheffler, in tears. They achieved an astonishing 8-under in a nine-hole stretch, an accomplishment rarely seen in an alternate shot format. Scheffler, the 2022 Masters champion, and Koepka, a five-time major winner, were defeated in just two hours and 20 minutes. The match concluded on the 11th hole, with Hovland and Åberg winning 9&7.

While Viktor Hovland and Åberg faced a setback in the afternoon match against Collin Morikawa and Sam Burns, Hovland sought redemption the following morning. What was expected to be a clash between two 26-year-old ball-striking virtuosos instead further validated Viktor Hovland’s growing stature. He led Morikawa, a two-time major winner, 3-up after just six holes and ultimately closed out the match on the 15th hole.

Anyone taken aback by Hovland’s Ryder Cup performance simply hasn’t been paying attention. Before Rome, he ranked second in the world in total strokes gained over the past three months, trailing only McIlroy. Despite the perception that he might be a straightforward power hitter with a violent swing and a perpetually untucked shirt, Hovland’s game is far more intricate.

“I try to use math and science and numbers and statistics to base my reasoning, to guide me to make better decisions, and I use common sense,” Viktor Hovland explained about his approach. “When you combine common sense with math and physics, and you work hard on those things every day, that’s why I’ve seen consistent improvement year after year. So I just keep doing that.”

To truly grasp the remarkable journey of Viktor Hovland and how swiftly he’s risen, one must recall that Sunday in late May at Oak Hill, a moment that occurred just about four months ago. Viktor Hovland found himself in the final group of the PGA Championship, standing on the precipice of his first major victory, paired alongside the formidable Brooks Koepka. As the day unfolded, the two golfers engaged in a back-and-forth struggle. Koepka established and safeguarded a lead, but Hovland refused to yield. However, on the 16th tee, Hovland’s path took an unexpected turn. He landed in a fairway bunker on the right side of a lengthy par 4, dealing with a challenging lie on a downslope. The front lip of the bunker loomed, not insurmountable but certainly a challenge. Hovland believed he could execute a heroic shot, clearing the bunker’s face and landing safely on the green. Unfortunately, his attempt went awry as he struck the ball low on the clubface, sending it screaming into the wall of the bunker.

In that moment, Hovland stood in stunned disbelief, everything swirling around him. He posted a double-bogey and ultimately finished just two shots behind Koepka, who secured his fifth major championship.

Such an ending often leaves lingering effects, but for Viktor Hovland, it was a source of valuable lessons—lessons alone.

“You can choose to bury yourself in a hole, engage in negative self-talk, and beat yourself up, but that won’t achieve anything,” Viktor Hovland shared with me. “You decide what your reality will be. You decide how it shapes your future.”

Coming from anyone else, such holistic thinking might be dismissed as mere words, but with Viktor Hovland, you believe it because you can see that he genuinely lives by those principles.

His approach to the game mirrors his personality—a potent combination. This is how he transformed the empty disappointment of Oak Hill into a springboard for a summer that has reshaped his standing in the world of golf.

“Leaving that experience, I genuinely believed that if I found myself in a similar situation again, I would handle it much better,” Viktor Hovland recounted. “And not long after that, I won the Memorial.”

Hovland attributes his perspective to his Norwegian roots and his life’s journey from Oslo to Oklahoma.

“I possess a different outlook on life because I grew up in a different culture but matured in the United States,” he explained. “I’ve always been open-minded, adaptable to my surroundings. You can either resist change or embrace it. I choose to embrace it.”

And that choice has brought him to where he is today—among the very best in the world, right in plain sight.

(Top photo: Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images)

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