Hail Viktor Hovland. Norwegian conqueror, Puerto Rico winner, golf's newest next big thing
Kevin C. Cox
RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico — Conquerors begin small. Napoleon seized Toulon, Alexander claimed Chaeronea, Tiger vanquished TPC Summerlin. It takes time and continued victory until the title is earned, before fear is instilled. For posterity, should these sentiments come to pass, let it be known that Viktor of Oslo’s first dispatch came against Josh of Kentucky, a battle contested off the sands of Puerto Rico.
Irrefutably, it was a battle. Against a valiant effort from journeyman Josh Teater. Against the elements, the skies unleashing torrential rain and unrelenting gusts on his final holes. Against, in moments, incurious observers, with fans moving in his sight-lines and a cart firing off its motor during a backswing. But Viktor Hovland is a Norseman, the 22-year-old’s youthful visage belying a stone-cold vigor. His putter serving as his stormbreaker, Hovland dropped a 35-foot birdie on the final hole at Grand Reserve in Coco Beach, becoming the first Norwegian winner in PGA Tour history.
“It is incredible,” said a sly-grinning Hovland after closing out a Sunday 70 to finish at 20-under 268, one lower than Teater. “I don’t even know. I couldn’t quite believe it."
The war cries have been sounded, sure. Capturing the 2018 U.S. Amateur, winning low am at the Masters, breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record for lowest amateur score in the U.S. Open, nearly grabbing his PGA Tour card in just five events and promptly securing it in the second Korn Ferry Playoff event. Yet more so than other sports, golf’s highly touted prospects aren’t guaranteed acclaim at the next level. Former World Am No. 1s like Peter Uihlein, Patrick Rodgers and Maverick McNealy in this week’s opposite-event field are proof of that. The breakthrough is only evident in hindsight.
But the breakthrough did happen, and in style. Even if there was some slight skidding along the way.
The coronation wanted to begin after the 10th hole. Entering the day with a one-stroke lead over Martin Laird, Hovland made the turn in one under as Laird went sideways, growing his advantage over the field by three thanks to a chip-in birdie at the 10th. One slight problem: Soon as the red carpet was rolled out, Hovland tripped on the runner something fierce.
At the par-3 11, a hole he had birdied the first three days of the tournament, Hovland misjudged the wind, his ball coming up short and to the right of the green. In theory, it shouldn't have been a problem. Pitch it on the green, two-putt at worst, maintain your rule.
Except, well, take it away, Viktor ...
“I looked at the shot and thought, 'Yeah, I’m going to chunk this,'” Hovland said.
Hovland put those thoughts into existence, excavating half of Puerto Rico with the first chip. The third followed suit. His fourth found the green, but his putt for double could not find the hole. For those scoring at home, that’s a triple-bogey 6, which dropped him back into a tie with Teater and Kyle Stanley.
“I just suck at chipping,” Hovland admitted. “I definitely need to work on my short game, and I was 100 percent exposed there. I can get away with it sometimes, but over 72 holes I really need to tighten that up.”
He did, bouncing back with pars on the 13th and 14th, then hitting one of the longest drives of the day on the par-5 15th. It is the rare par 5 on Tour that’s not a given to reach in two, but Hovland’s nuke left him a 2-iron in. He flared the shot, but only slightly, leaving him about 10 yards or so off the green.
From there, Hovland’s chipping, the bane of his existence (he wasn’t being dramatic; Hovland ranks 230th in strokes gained/around-the-green) delivered, his pitch coming to rest in the cup. Eagle, back up one.
“To be honest, I missed my spot by a few feet,” Hovland admitted. “But it took a big jump forward, and I got lucky.”
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
The luck ended there, as someone in the heavens turned on a faucet. For the next two holes, Hovland played in blistering rain. Twenty-mph wind did not help matters, nor was the television cart that revved its engine during his swing at the 17th. Hovland managed pars in the wet, but Teater converted a birdie on the 17th. All tied with one to play.
With the weather preventing players from reaching the par-5 18th in two, Teater put his third from 100 yards out within 10 feet, leaving a sought-after uphill putt. But the greens softened drastically from the storm, and Teater failed to recalibrate the speed. The attempt, and charge from the 40-year-old, finished just short.
Watching Teater miss from the fairway, Hovland hit his approach, which was devoured by the wind, leaving 25 feet or so for the birdie and the win. While the approach was short, his putt was not. In just his 12th official PGA Tour start as a professional, Viktor Hovland was a PGA Tour champion.
“I just whacked it,” Hovland said. “I wasn’t going to leave it.”
Hovland joins fellow Oklahoma State product Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa as young guns to win within the past year since leaving college. And one doesn’t have to squint too hard, with his power off the tee and mouth-watering approach game, to see what could be on Hovland’s horizon. But Hovland has no stomach for such comparisons or projections. “I want to join that group [of Wolff and Morikawa] but all expectations and pressure come from myself,” Hovland said. “I just try to stay within myself and get better every day.”
It’s worth noting that while the putt on the 18th secured the trophy, to Hovland it was won on the 11th. He has a reputation of running hot, letting small mistakes turning his attitude south, his attention elsewhere. Not in Puerto Rico. His performance was one of patience and fortitude and calm.
“This week I’ve been ice cold,” Hovland said. “Even after the triple I thought, 'Crap, this is not ideal,' but I knew that if I just played well on the back ... I can be right in it.”
That should serve as a warning to the rest of golf. For there is little that can withstand a man who can conquer himself.