DUBLIN, Ohio — The book on Viktor Hovland, or at least the opening few chapters that have been written this far, is that the young Norwegian needs a better short game to complement his ball-striking talents.
Apparently, the young man has been reading up.
Hovland wasn’t the best ball-striker this week at the Memorial Tournament. He wasn’t the best putter, either. But he was darn good at both. Throw in some respectable scrambling and you have a recipe for success, which is what the 25-year-old achieved with his playoff victory Sunday at Muirfield Village Golf Club.
Enduring a 2022-23 season where he has come frustratingly close in several big events, including a share of second only two weeks ago in the PGA Championship, Hovland finally cashed in when he sank a seven-foot par putt on the 18th hole, the first hole of sudden death, to defeat hard-luck Denny McCarthy. The victory, Hovland’s fourth on the PGA Tour and his first on the U.S. mainland, was set up when he got up and down for par from behind the green on his final hole in regulation and McCarthy couldn’t do the same a few minutes later. They each shot 70 and finished at seven-under 281.
“I’ve been playing well, but I’ve just been trying to stay within myself and play my own game,” said Hovland, who also finished T-3 at the Players and T-7 at the Masters this year. “Maybe before I would have fired at some pins that I shouldn’t, but I played smart and came up clutch this time. It feels even better after a few close calls the last few months.”
Hovland, who trailed by as many as four shots at one point on a breezy final day, birdied two of his last four holes in regulation, including a 28-footer at the par-17th that was the only birdie at the long par-4 all day. His 281 total was the fourth-highest winning score in Memorial history and the highest since Hale Irwin won with the same total in 1985 as Muirfield Village, firm and fast, put up a fight that had players comparing it to a major examination.
Which perhaps was why Hovland eventually emerged with the victory. The former U.S. Amateur champion might not have been comfortable on difficult layouts in years past, but he’s warming up to them.
“I feel like I've won a decent amount of tournaments for only being a pro for four years,” said Hovland, also a two-time DP World Tour winner and a two-time champion of Tiger Woods’ Hero World Challenge. “However, they have been at low key places, resort courses and abroad, so it feels really cool to get my first win on the U.S. soil, especially at a tournament like this where this week the golf course is arguably harder than most major championship golf courses we play. It felt like a major. So it was a really cool that I was able to get it done at a place like this.”
He knows exactly how he got it done. Hovland, who joined Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy as the only player to have at least one win in the last four seasons, displayed enough of his usual solid play tee to green, but he ranked 21st in scrambling and third in strokes gained/putting, which was crucial to counter McCarthy, the tour putting leader who ranked first on Muirfield’s treacherous greens.
Joked tournament host Jack Nicklaus, “I walked out on the 18th green tonight with Viktor and I said, ‘This is what you guys putted on?’ It was hard.”
The whole place was hard, the course playing to a 74.985 scoring average during the final round.
“I've historically kind of done better at easier golf courses because of my aggressive nature of how I play the game and I like to hit right at the pin. So if the ball stops where it lands, I can be very aggressive and just take it at the pins,” said Hovland, who rose from seventh to fifth in the World Ranking. “On the harder golf courses, you can hit good shots and you're just going to miss some greens. So if I'm missing more greens and I didn't have the short game before, it just puts more pressure on my ball-striking, and to a certain point there's only so many greens that you can hit. I feel like maybe this week I hit about 10, 11, 12 greens every single day and didn't hit it bad, by any means, I hit it fine, but if you don't have a short game to kind of get you through those holes that you were missing greens on, then you just don't have a chance.
“I feel like now with my good ball-striking and a short game that I can rely on, I feel like these hard golf courses should suit me a lot better than they have in the past.”
McCarthy, 30, led for much of the afternoon and had a putt for his first tour win after finding the rough left of the fairway at 18, but he missed from 23 feet. He then blocked his tee shot in the playoff into the right rough and again failed to reach the green in regulation. Hovland, meanwhile, drove 30 yards past McCarthy and in play and put his second shot on the green 51 feet left of the hole. His birdie try came up well short, but he managed to coax in the second in the right side of the cup for a victory worth $3.6 million in the designated event.
Both men began the day one stroke behind a trio of leaders, including World No. 3 McIlroy, but it was McCarthy, who finished T-5 at Muirfield Village last year, who leaped ahead by going out in 33 to lead by as many as two strokes for most of the day. A series of gutsy par saves kept him ahead until the last hole. The Maryland native still recorded his best finish on the PGA Tour, and his $2.1 million payday was four times the most he had previously earned in his six full seasons on tour.
“I battled really hard,” McCarthy said, fighting back his emotions. “Heart broken right now, but a lot of positives to take from this week. Played really well and obviously my putter kept me in it when I was a little shaky. I hit a lot of good golf shots this week.”
McIlroy briefly separated himself from the tight-bunched leaderboard when he pitched in for birdie from well left of the green at the par-3 fourth hole to reach seven under, but he soon was passed by McCarthy, and a host of others, as the swing flaws he had been battling the last few months reared up. Bogeys on both par-five holes on the outward nine hinted at the struggles ahead, and McIlroy could never get untracked in a closing 75 the left him tied for seventh.
“It's a step in the right direction,” McIlroy said. “I feel a little better about everything compared to where I was a couple weeks ago at Oak Hill. So it's obviously not the result that I wanted today, but I feel like there was a few more positives than there was a couple weeks ago.”
World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler finished third after firing the low round of the day, a five-under 67 that left him one back at 282. Playing alongside No. 2 Jon Rahm in a marquee pairing of the top-two golfers in the Official World Golf Ranking, Scheffler has been a ball-striking genius this season and dominated tee to green at Muirfield Village. His runner-up finish was his third straight top-five, and since winning the WM Phoenix Open in February, the powerful Texan hasn’t finished worse than T-12.
“I just tried to bring a good attitude coming in,” Scheffler said after making the cut on the number and then shooting a tournament-best nine under on the weekend. “The first two days here were really frustrating. It's tough. It's the fourth week in a row. I'm pretty tired. I was in contention at Byron, PGA, and Colonial, and I'm pretty worn out at the moment. So I was just proud of how I showed up this weekend and fought. I hit it so good and I gave myself a chance. Made a few more putts go in, it's a little different story.”
The Memorial served as an Open Qualifier for the 151st championship next month at Royal Liverpool. The leading three players not already exempt earned a berth, and those spots went to Andrew Putnam (T-5), Adam Schenk (T-7) and Lee Hodges, who was T-12 and won a tiebreaker of David Lipsky via a higher World Ranking.
Speaking of majors, the U.S. Open is less than two weeks away, and Hovland hopes there’s more magic coming his way at Los Angeles Country Club. While failing to win at Oak Hill, a closing 70 was considered a victory of sorts as he continues to learn how to handle the pressure of the game’s biggest stages. Given the conditions, and the field, Hovland has reason to believe his victory at Muirfield Village is validation that his short game is catching up with the player Hovland hopes he can be.