ROME — The room got a good laugh. Question after question had found its way to Rory McIlroy following Team Europe’s win in last weekend’s Ryder Cup. McIlroy being, as he so often is, fully the center of attention. Finally, a reporter took the microphone and offered to give McIlroy a break. “I have one for Jon,” the reporter said, getting the attention of Jon Rahm, who feigned snapping awake.
“About time,” McIlroy said, looking over to Rahm, then back to an audience of reporters, indignant, “he’s only the best player in the world!”
Including Viktor Hovland.
It seemed lost on all that the real joke at the moment was the seeming obliviousness to the young man who — right now, at this moment — is playing better golf than anyone in the world. No attention was paid to Hovland last Sunday. He was not asked a single question in the 27-minute press conference. He was hardly mentioned.
This is despite Hovland being one of only two Europeans to play all five matches in his team’s 16 1/2 — 11 1/2 victory over the Americans. And despite him scoring 3 1/2 points, the lone loss coming in a Saturday afternoon fourball match when playing partner Ludvig Åberg couldn’t keep the ball on the planet. And despite him putting Collin Morikawa in a bodybag in their Sunday singles match. And despite him being the 2023 FedEx Cup champion.
And, it should be said, despite him being the next great star in professional golf.
If there’s a takeaway to be had from this departed Ryder Cup, and the last two months in professional golf, let it be this. Lots of young potential stars arrive in golf. Only some fully manifest. Hovland is proving to be one of those special cases who see it through. Just like McIlroy. Just like Rahm. This is where Hovland is going to reside.
— Ryder Cup Europe (@RyderCupEurope) October 5, 2023
This isn’t sportswriter hyperbole. European Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald quietly pointed out an extraordinary side of Hovland’s genius last week. At Whistling Straits, Donald recalled, Hovland was among the best ball-strikers but was foiled by short-game issues throughout the 2021 Ryder Cup. Two years later, in Rome, Hovland’s short-game stats were team-best. As it turns out, he has one of those traits shared by only the greats.
“He’s worked so hard on his weaknesses,” Donald said, “and they have become strengths.”
That’s why it’s past time to give Hovland more attention, to attempt to understand him better, to maybe ask him how he’s gotten so damn good.
Because anyone who’s paying attention knows what’s coming next.
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Donald said, “if he’ll win a bunch of majors coming up.”
“Hello, suuurrrrr! How are you?!”
This is how Viktor Hovland speaks. Every word invites you in for a drink.
We spoke by phone a few weeks prior to the Ryder Cup. He was back in Oklahoma, his home since 2016, back when he attended Oklahoma State, leading the Pokes to a national title and filling the shelves with all varieties of individual awards. Today, Hovland could live anywhere, but chooses Stillwater, Okla. Why? Because he’s Viktor Hovland and he is endearingly weird. The guy has a presence to him. Broad, handsome. Shoulders like bricklayer. Yet totally unthreatening. Giant smile. Laughs so hard he has to close his eyes. Everyone likes him. Some kind of Norwegian Marty McFly.
I was curious how someone with the lean of a conscientious objector came to be such a killer. Hovland is not just an elite player. He’s an elite winner. There’s a difference. Hovland won the Norwegian Amateur at the age of 16, five years after taking up the game. Four years later, he won the U.S. Amateur. He turned pro in 2019 and has won six times on the PGA Tour including three marquee wins this season — the Memorial, the BMW and the Tour Championship. What’s his edge?
“Well, I’m trying to psychoanalyze myself,” he told me, stopping and starting, pausing. “I think I try to be a little stoic about things. Obviously, I’m competitive. I want to beat people. But I don’t have to go out of my way to show you I beat you. It’s more, ‘Oh, I made another putt. Four birdies in a row!’ I let that speak for itself and, yes, I smile when I’m doing it.”
This is the beauty of watching Hovland play. Oddly indifferent, but calculating. Full-tilt, but composed. Ever seen him take a practice swing with a driver? The typical pro gets behind the ball and grooves a breezy rehearsal. Hovland? He takes two breakneck lashes. Looks like he’s planning to hit a five-run homer. Then he steps in and pounds the ball, unfazed by anyone or anything.
Last Sunday, after wrapping up his singles victory over Morikawa, Hovland watched Justin Rose’s attempt to close out a match versus Patrick Cantlay. On the 17th tee, Rose’s caddie, Mark Fulcher, told a volunteer to lower a sign that created a shadow about 10 feet behind him. Then Rose noticed Fulcher, too, was casting a small shadow, and asked him to move. Fulcher apologized and knelt down. Behind the tee, watching such nuance, Hovland could hardly contain his laughter.
Hovland’s version of nuance? A day earlier on Marco Simone’s seventh hole, he arrived at the tee with music blasting in the near distance and never seemed to notice it. He pegged it, flushed it, returned to his bag, and then seemed to notice the song. The lyrics? “Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated … ”
“Sometimes when I’m in that zone, it just feels easy,” Hovland explained weeks earlier. “I’m hitting the shots close to the pin. When I’m standing over the ball, I’m feeling the ball go into the hole, instead of thinking, ‘Don’t miss this,’ or ‘Don’t hit it there.’ It just happens.”
This is how Hovland became the avatar of what became a European Ryder Cup performance worthy of all adjectives. Historic. Epic. Ruthless.
Playing in the second group of the first session, Hovland chipped in from off the first green, sending Marco Simone into an early frenzy. He was the spark of a 4-0-0 first session. In the afternoon, he and Tyrrell Hatton erased a 2-down deficit with five holes to go against Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. On the 18th, a moment. Hovland’s 26-foot birdie putt arrived at the lip, hanging in suspended animation, taking all the air, freezing Hovland in place, then fell. Hysteria.
Then came Saturday morning. Hovland and Åberg versus Scottie Scheffler and Brooks Koepka. Players have gotten their asses kicked in the Ryder Cup before. But never like this. Hovland and Åberg left the No. 1-ranked player in the world in tears. They went 8-under in a nine-hole stretch at one point, relatively unheard of in an alternate shot format. Scheffler, the 2022 Masters champion, and Koepka, a five-time major winner, lost in two hours and 20 minutes. The match ended on the 11th hole, 9&7.
Hovland and Åberg dropped an afternoon match to Morikawa and Sam Burns, but Hovland got revenge the next morning. What was thought to be a matchup of two 26-year-old ball-striking virtuosos was instead further proof of Hovland’s growing status. He led Morikawa, a two-time major winner, 3-up after six holes. He ended the match on the 15th hole.
Anyone surprised hasn’t been paying attention. Before Rome, Hovland ranked second in the world in total strokes gained over the last three months, behind only McIlroy. While he can carry the perception of an uncomplicated masher — violent swing, shirt perpetually coming untucked — he’s anything but.
“I try to use math and science and numbers and statistics to base my reasoning, to guide me to make better decisions, and I use common sense,” Hovland said of his approach. “When you combine common sense with math and physics, and you work hard on those things every day.
“That’s why I’ve seen results every single year and gotten better. So I just keep doing that.”
To fully appreciate how far Viktor Hovland has come, and how quickly, it’s worth remembering that Sunday in late May at Oak Hill. It was nearly four months ago. Hovland found himself in the final group of the PGA Championship, tantalizingly close to his first major victory, paired with the indomitable Brooks Koepka. The two jockeyed as the day went on. Koepka built and protected a lead, but Hovland refused to abate. From the 16th tee, though, Hovland found a fairway bunker along the right side of a long par 4. Bad lie, on the downslope. The bunker’s front lip wasn’t too high, but it was there. Hovland thought he could smash an iron, carry the face of the bunker, and stay in the hole. He thought wrong. He caught the ball low on the face of the club, hit a screamer, and plugged his chances of winning his first major into the wall of the bunker.
In the moment, Hovland stood stunned. Shock. Disbelief. Everything swirling. He posted a double-bogey and, in the end, finished two shots back. Koepka won his fifth career major.
It was the kind of ending that comes with residuals.
For Hovland, it came with lessons. Only lessons.
“You can decide to bury yourself in a hole and talk yourself down and beat yourself up, but that’s not going to accomplish anything,” Hovland told me. “You decide what your truth is going to be. You decide how it affects your future.”
From anyone else, such holism would be dismissed as prattle. But Hovland is not anyone. When he says, “You have to control where your thoughts are going,” you believe that he can and that he does.
His approach to the game matches his disposition. A lethal combination. That’s how he turned the empty disappointment of Oak Hill into a springboard for a summer that’s changed his place in the game.
“Coming out of there, I truly believed that if I found myself in that spot again, I would handle it a lot better,” Hovland said. “It wasn’t long after that I won the Memorial.”
Hovland credits his Norwegian roots and the road he’s taken from Oslo to Oklahoma.
“I have a different perspective on things because I grew up in a different culture, but became an adult in the United States,” he said. “I’ve always been really open-minded, in the sense that I’ve been very malleable to my surroundings. You can either fight change or embrace it. I embrace it.”
That’s gotten him here.
Among the best in the world, in plain sight.
(Top photo: Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images)