DUBAI — The season-long chase that is the Race to Dubai may have been claimed by Rory McIlroy prior to arrival in the United Arab Emirate, but the race in Dubai went a long way towards making up for that initial anti-climax. Closing with an eight-under-par 64 that included five birdies in his last six holes, Denmark’s Nicolai Hojgaard made off with the DP World Tour Championship and the $3 million first prize, easily the biggest of the 22-year-old’s career.
Perhaps the only Danish downside in what was a day of high drama was the fact that Nicolai’s identical twin, Rasmus, pulled up one place—and one shot—out of the top 10 on the list that will send players to the PGA Tour next year. The hope was that they’d be together next season in the U.S.; even before this latest victory, his third in 91 starts on his home tour, Nicolai had already ensured his 2024 playing rights stateside through his accumulation of “non-member FedEx Cup points” this year.
Still, all of that is for a future that is to be faced after what was clearly a momentous present for the elder—“by a few minutes”—Hojgaard twin. A mildly controversial selection for the recent European Ryder Cup, where he went 0-2-1 in three closely contested matches, this victory represents a big step up for a young man for whom many have long predicted great things.
“Both twins are not blown away by the speed at which they have progressed,” says Soren Kjeldsen, another Dane on the DP World Tour player. “They seem to take it all in their stride. Money and fame can be difficult, but not for them. They don’t seem to need a lot of attention or noise around them to be happy. They are too busy trying to improve.”
While that may be the process, the final target has always been clear.
“The way to America for us is through making the top-50 in the World Rankings,” Nicolai (erroneously) told Golf Digest two years ago. “So we have to get better as fast as possible. We have a bit to go, but it can happen fast. You can do it in a month, or at least with a good run over two or three months. It’s never far away. It’s all about sticking to the plan.”
On a Sunday afternoon in Dubai, that strategy involved making nine birdies and dropping only one shot to reach what proved to be, by two shots, an unassailable target of 21 under par. But it was the run of five on the back-nine that set Hojgaard apart from a pack that included another Ryder Cup teammate in Tommy Fleetwood, FedEx Cup champion Viktor Hovland, World No. 3 Jon Rahm, in addition to a man, Matt Wallace, who had shot 60 one day earlier. This then was a victory won well.
“This means a lot,” Hojgaard said. “It's the sweetest one. So much hard work has been put in the last couple of years. And this year has been really good, if I look back on it. The only thing I was missing was a win. So to get it this week, against this field, is unbelievable. I can't believe it's just happened. I was just so focused on the job on the golf course. But this feels amazing now. I've got family here. This one is for family. Everything they put in over the years, there's so much hard work gone into this.”
Some of that effort came over the last six holes, of course. Two shots behind standing on the 13th tee having just dropped a shot on the previous hole, things were looking less than peachy for Hojgaard. What was going through his mind?
“Just focus on the job,” Hojgaard said. “Focus on myself. Don't worry about what everybody else is doing. We know there's a lot of birdies on this golf course but at the same time you have to hit the shots, you have to hole the putts, everything can happen, especially coming down the stretch.”
While his plans have yet to be made, much thought will now go into just how Nicolai will manage being so far from home for so long in the next year. There is much to consider, but an apartment somewhere in the States is likely to be part of the end result.
“At the moment, that's something we have to figure out,” he said. “There's a lot of things and it's something we needed to clear this week. We needed to finish this week first before we go into the depth of what we'll deal with next week or next year. We probably have to base ourselves over there. If you really want to compete against the best, I think you have to dedicate yourself and move there. But we'll see what's going to happen the next few weeks.”
Predictably, amidst the joy of victory, there were words of sympathy and sorrow for the brother and “best friend” Nicolai will surely and sorely miss during much of 2024. On that front they will do well to remember a story their father, Ole, likes to tell.
“I took the twins to the Danish age-group championships when they were 12,” said the elder Hojgaard. “So they were competing in the under-14 section. To us, it looked like a European Tour event. There were banners everywhere. I can see them now, two small kids sitting there with their juniors bags and clubs. All the other kids had new equipment and proper clubs. When they saw that, they both went quiet. They didn’t say a word.
“It was a two-day event,” he continued. “I think Nicolai was playing off 15 and went round in five over par. He was leading by two from Rasmus. On the way home, they were sitting in the back seats. Again, they said nothing. Halfway home, I told them we needed to have a talk. I told them only one of them could win. And maybe neither of them would win. But we have a chance that one of you will. I asked them to promise that, whatever happened, they would each support the other.”
Clearly, given the emotional hug they shared in the immediate aftermath of one twin’s triumph and the other’s crushing disappointment, they haven’t forgotten that sage advice.
“We have a special bond,” Nicolai said. “Even though one of us is in a tough time, we always cheer for each other.”
Still, for all the mixed emotions at the end of a tumultuous day, it would be naive to imagine this win, grand as it clearly is, will represent the pinnacle of what Hojgaard (and his brother) will go on to achieve.
“We have yet to win a major as a nation,” Kjeldsen said. “But I can see one or both of the twins doing that. They have every chance. This is a good time for Danish golf.”
With great times to come.