ATLANTA — When Oklahoma State golf coach Alan Bratton was recruiting Viktor Hovland in 2015, he remembers Hovland telling him that he couldn’t wait to get to the United States and hit balls off grass.
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“I remember thinking that was a phrase I’d never burped out of my mouth,” Bratton said. “I couldn’t relate to it.”
Bratton didn’t grow up trying to play an outdoor sport in Oslo, Norway.
The Scandinavian country known more for downhill skiing and snowboarding is now home to the hottest golfer on the planet after Hovland won the Tour Championship by 5 strokes over Xander Schauffele at East Lake Golf Club on Sunday. Hovland carded a 7-under 63 in the final round.
Hovland started the staggered-scoring event at 8 under and shot 19 under on his own to finish 27 under. He was 11 shots better than U.S. Open winner Wyndham Clark, who finished third, and 13 better than Rory McIlroy, who was fourth.
It was Hovland’s second straight victory after he captured the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields, Illinois, last week. His latest victory came with the FedEx Cup and an $18 million bonus. Hovland, 24, earned $21.6 million over the past two weeks.
“It’s been a great year,” Hovland said. “I feel like I’ve taken a lot of steps this season, contending in more major championships. I finally won in the U.S. I won a big tournament, Jack [Nicklaus’] event. And honestly, after that, I felt like I’ve gotten so much better, and it was very pleasing to see. Obviously, the last couple weeks have just superseded that. It’s been pretty surreal.
“Obviously, you dream about it, but these things happen when you don’t really expect them.”
Hovland’s path to East Lake Golf Club was one of the most unlikely. He didn’t start playing golf until he was 11. His father, Harald, worked as an engineer for one year in St. Louis and brought his son home a set of clubs.
Hovland practiced at an indoor golf facility and played outdoors when there wasn’t snow on the ground. There are about six to eight hours of daylight during the winter months, and Hovland passed time by watching instructional swing lessons on YouTube. The good news: There are about 18 to 19 hours of daylight during the height of the summer. Hovland didn’t leave the golf course until after 10 p.m. on most summer days.
“I would take every single day very seriously because every day I had home in the summer I couldn’t just waste away the day, because in a couple months, it’s winter, and I can’t play outside,” Hovland said. “So every single day I tried to get its most out of, and I think that really helped me.”
Bratton got his first look at Hovland while he was watching future Oklahoma State player Kristoffer Ventura competing in the European Boys’ Team Championships in Scotland in 2013. Hovland was two years younger and wasn’t one of Norway’s best players.
Bratton saw enough talent in Hovland to offer him a scholarship in 2015, and Hovland signed with the Cowboys shortly after visiting campus. In 2018, Hovland helped the Cowboys win a team national championship. That summer, he won the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Hovland was the low amateur in the 2019 Masters then the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links in his final tournament as an amateur. His 4-under total of 280 over 72 holes broke Jack Nicklaus‘ U.S. Open scoring total for an amateur set at Cherry Hills in 1960.
Less than a year later, after earning his PGA Tour card through the Korn Ferry Tour, Hovland picked up his first victory at the 2020 Puerto Rico Open, making a 30-foot birdie on the final hole to win. He became the first player from Norway to win on the PGA Tour. Less than 10 months later, he made a 12-foot birdie to defeat Aaron Wise in the Mayakoba Golf Classic.
Hovland’s victory at Puerto Rico taught him something else about his game: He needed to develop a better short game.
“I suck at chipping,” Hovland said at the time. “That’s something I know I’m going to have to improve if I want to play my best at this level.”
Since bursting on tour, Hovland has been regarded as one of the best ball strikers in the world.
“He’s just so straight. He’s just so accurate,” England’s Matt Fitzpatrick said. “Tee to green is phenomenal. Every time he hits a shot — it just stupid as sounds — the ball’s always going forward. There’s not really much shape on it. It’s just always going forward, and I think that’s impressive.”
But what wasn’t impressive until recently was Hovland’s short game. During the 2020-21 season, he ranked in the top 10 on tour in strokes gained: tee to green, off the tee and total. He was 124th in strokes: gained around the green. Hovland was 191st in that statistic last season.
“His short game [trouble] was overblown,” Bratton said. “When he was younger and during his time here, his short game wasn’t awful. It wasn’t his strength. It got exposed a little bit out there on the PGA Tour. He was never very good from the rough. Going against the best players in the world, you can’t afford to have a weakness. When that’s all anyone wants to talk about, then it can become something bigger than it needs to be.”
To Hovland’s credit, he devoted more time to chipping. He has been working with short-game specialist Joe Mayo. Hovland has been using the AimPoint putting technique to help him read greens better since 2020; developed by Mark Sweeney, it uses physics to help players read the slope of greens.
“He’s been awesome,” Hovland said of Mayo. “I like just picking people’s brains, and he’s an interesting brain to pick. He might be one of the only golf instructors that never watches golf. So when he came on board, he had no idea how I played, what I was doing, what it looked like. So he kind of had a fresh set of eyes. Yeah, he’s just brought a lot of math and physics to my golf game, and we’ve just applied that, put a lot of hours in — and funny enough, it works.”
Hovland won twice more this season, at the Memorial in June when he beat Denny McCarthy in a playoff in a designated event then last week’s playoff event. He also has won twice on the DP World Tour. Since 2020, only Jon Rahm has won more times combined on both tours with 10 victories.
At East Lake Golf Club, everything came together for Hovland. He led the field in strokes gained: off the tee (4.814), was fifth in approach (4.730), 11th around the green (1.103) and fourth in putting (3.387).
When did Hovland realize winning a Tour Championship might be possible?
“When I start to see the short game kind of come around and I believe I have all the shots,” Hovland said. “I just saw the shots that I was able to pull off in tournaments and in highly stressful situations. I coupled that with the course management stuff and just the attitude, just handling bad bounces, handling bogeys, handling bad shots. Just those three aspects combined, when I started to see that, I wasn’t stressed when I showed up to a golf tournament or a golf course. It was like, ‘OK, whatever happens, happens. I might play bad, and that’s OK.’
“Even today, it wasn’t like, ‘Man, I hope the double cross with the driver doesn’t show up today. I hope I don’t three-putt today. I hope I don’t chunk the chips today.’ You know, that might happen, but it’s OK. I think just as soon as I made that mindset change, everything started to kind of come together.”