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2024 Masters: Viktor Hovland just had his best season. So why is he tweaking his golf swing?

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AUGUSTA, Ga.— Somewhere last season, Viktor Hovland encountered a problem with his golf swing. A good problem, yes, but a problem nonetheless.

Hovland's results looked good by any measure. Pull the books in any number of ways and you'll like what you find: He was the joint-best player in relation to par in each of the four majors at 16 under. The second-best points scorer at the Ryder Cup. The fifth-best player in strokes gained/tee-to-green. The FedEx Cup champion.

Yes, the results looked good, but in some ways it felt like a false dawn, Hovland admitted on Tuesday at the Masters.

"Honestly I knew I was playing good golf," Hovland said," but it came as a little bit of a surprise that I was able to win the FedExCup."

A good problem to have, yes, but a problem nonetheless.

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'I was kind of fighting'

Hovland spoke to inklings of it at the very end of the 2022 season, at the DP World Tour Championship:

"I'm trying to minimize the curve a little bit so I know exactly where the ball is going to curve," he said. "I might not hit it exactly where I want it to, but at least I know the dispersion of the shot pattern. I'm not trying to hit a cut and suddenly there's a pull-draw and you lose confidence where the ball is going to go."

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In the middle of that season, that occasional pull-draw became less the exception and more the norm. But the sport's biggest tournaments were flowing thick-and-fast at this point, and again, he was scoring well. Like a Formula 1 Driver who knows his tires are spent but is on his final few lapes. Now was not the time to pit. It was time to get what he had over the line. Even if it didn't feel quite right.

"I was playing more of a draw instead of playing the normal cut shot that I have been playing my whole career," Hovland said earlier this season. "I was kind of fighting that all throughout last year. I just told myself, Okay, I'm just going to play the draw and just stick to that."

Hovland began pouring in the hours—"I was spending probably seven, eight hours after every single round just trying to kind of figure it out," he said—which was unsustainable and uncomfortable. Left unaddressed, it may have left him burned out. But it was necessary during a chaotic stretch of golf, and ultimately, worth it.

A few weeks off following the season, and now was the time to address the bad habits that had leaked into his swing over the previous season.

Rebooting what worked

Hovland doesn't have traditional player-coach relationships, which makes the discourse on this messy. Hovland operates as the CEO of his own golf game. He makes the decisions, but he periodically taps a roundtable of consultants he likes and trusts. Hearing from another voice doesn't constitute a player-coaching split as we traditionally know it, and he'll often maintain a good relationship with these coaches after moving on.

At the start of the 2022-23 season, Hovland called upon Golf Digest Top 50 Teacher Joe Mayo to help his short game, and it worked: In one season, Hovland altered his technique and jumped from 191st in SG/around the greento 86th because of it.

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When the time came to iron out the details in his full swing, Hovland first tapped Mayo's former teaching partner, Grant Waite, and now Golf Digest No. 9-ranked teacher Dana Dahlquist, who consulted with Hovland in 2019 and 2020.

Dahlquist, who is part of Bryson DeChambeau and recent tour winner Jake Knapp's coaching teams, cross-referenced Hovland's 3D golf swing data from previous years. He found that Hovland's grip had gotten slightly weaker, so his right hand was more on top of the grip, at setup. For many golfers that tends to open the clubface (making it a common cause of slices), but Hovland counteracted this move by keeping his right arm high on his takeaway, and the clubface pointing towards the ground more so than in the past.

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As he continued his backswing up to the top, it landed Hovland's club in a more across-the-line position (pointing to the right of his target) with the clubface more pointing towards the sky than in previous years. It's why his go-to fade became more difficult to hit, and a pull-draw became more frequent.

Below is a comparison of the same position in 2020 (his self-professed favorite golf swing), 2022, and 2023.

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Jared C. Tilton

The new orientation and movement of his right arm also tilted his upper body more towards the ground than it had been in the past, which meant he needed to quickly create a huge amount of side bend on his downswing—a move that for some golfers can create negative long term issues on golfers' backs.

Adding more tilt and setup, and reorienting the way Hovland's right arm moves is the task for Hovland and Dahlquist this week. Hovland himself says he's spending lots of time repping the new movements. Progress is slow, but it's coming, he says.

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"Most of the time in my career if I've had an issue and I need to work on something, I would just get right behind a mirror or something and I'll hit balls, do a lot of slow motion swings, and just really feel the changes and groove the movement and if I can do it at a slower pace. Then I'll just keep ramping it up until it feels more comfortable," Hovland said Tuesday.

"What I've been dealing with recently is when It's like you're trying to work on something, but it doesn't feel exactly right. That's when you kind of have to go back to the drawing board to keep figuring out until things start to click. I feel like I'm in that situation now. Now I just have to keep practicing and get the reps in and we'll see how long that takes."

As a self-avowed golf swing geek, this all makes sense to me. But for others, it doesn't. Their question remains: Why change what was working?

In short, because what was working in the short term likely wouldn't have for much longer. Just as cars need routine maintenance to keep running well, so do golf swings.

You may object to the premise. That the oil didn't actually need to be changed. That it was only you who thinked the oil needed to be changed, when in fact, it didn't. And in trying to fix something that wasn't broken, you've created more problems to solve.

Of course, believing that requires also believing that you know more about what's good for the golfer more than a player's own instincts. Then this same crowd, had Hovland left his previous move untouched against his own best instincts, would have wondered how he could've let it go so wrong. It was a series of adjustments that in some ways, were inevitable. He made them now. If he didn't, he would've needed to later.

The fact is that golf swings are movements, and specific movements are hard to keep the same week after week, tournament after tournament, year after year. Golf swings change. They move around. Bad habits sneak in. Slight complacencies which most outsiders won't notice at first. But once they do, the task of undoing becomes more than the routine maintenance you skipped over in the first place.

Golf swings work for moments in time. Hovland enjoyed a good one last year, but times change. Things stop working; no longer feel right. It's time to start anew, and reboot what worked in the past.

Hovland's task ahead of the 2024 Masters? To create a new moment in time. And hopefully, the best one yet.

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