PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club



Fairway Bunker

PGA Championship 2023: How Viktor Hovland's major hopes unraveled with one weird and unlucky shot

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Warren Little

Technically, it’s a bunker to the right of the 16th fairway at Oak Hill Country Club. But the final two rounds of the 2023 PGA Championship, it was more like a graveyard.

It started on Saturday. Corey Conners, the championship leader at that point, had found the bunker off the tee. Just shy of 160 yards, Connors bit off a little more than he could chew, and perhaps thinned his iron a touch, and sent his ball directly into the face of the bunker. A double bogey, and his tournament was over.

It was almost a carbon copy when Viktor Hovland landed in the same bunker on Sunday. One back of Brooks Koepka’s unrelenting lead, Hovland suffered the same fate. From 172 yards, his ball too ended underground in the face of the bunker, and a double bogey ended his hopes.

There are two interesting takeaways from the moment.

An unlucky shot …

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Warren Little

The first is the obvious one: How could two different players make such a severe error?

The answer is that it’s a simple matter of temptation: 172 yards, in Hovland’s case, is mid-iron range. Too far to chip out, and not obvious that they should. They simply take a club they think can clear the bunker lip, and hit it. The added wrinkle here is that when pros get into fairway bunkers, they’ll make a series of minor adjustments that help them pick the ball clean off the sand (choking down on the grip being the main one). But those things launch the ball slightly lower, too. Catch the ball a little too thin, and it goes a little too low, and you get what happened to Hovland.

The other is the interesting rule technicality that followed.

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Warren Little

… a lucky ruling

After Hovland’s second shot, a rules official allowed him to take one club’s worth of free relief because the ball was embedded. This is because Hovland’s ball was no longer in the bunker. If it was, he wouldn’t get relief.

Hovland had hit his ball just out of the bunker, into the lip. The bunker lip is no different from the rough, or the fairway for that matter. If your ball is embedded in any of those areas, you get free relief. And so he did.

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It was a good learning moment for the rest of us. For Hovland, ultimately, it was the toughest of breaks. A few inches higher and things could’ve been different. But the margins are thin at the highest level of golf. A little too much temptation, a tiny misjudgment, the slightest of execution errors, and a second-place finish.

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