Mark SchlbachSenior writer for ESPN5 minutes to read
ATLANTA — When Oklahoma State golf coach Alan Bratton was hiring Victor Hovland in 2015, he remembers Hovland telling him he couldn’t wait to get to the States and hit the grass.
“I remember thinking that was a phrase I never belched out of my mouth,” said Bratton. “I couldn’t relate to him.”
Bratton didn’t grow up trying an outdoor sport in Oslo, Norway.
The Scandinavian country best known for its downhill skiing and snowboarding is now home to the best golfer on the planet after Hovland won the Tour Championship by five strokes over Xander Schoevel at Eastlake Golf Club on Sunday. Hovland took a 7-under 63 in the final round.
Hovland started the graded scoring event at 8-under and shot 19-under of his own to finish 27-under. He was 11 shots better than US Open winner Wyndham Clarke, who finished third, and 13 shots better than Rory McIlroy, who finished fourth.
This is Hovland’s second consecutive victory after winning the BMW Championship in Olympia Fields, Illinois, last week. His last win came with the FedEx Cup and an $18 million bonus. Hovland, 24, earned $21.6 million in the past two weeks.
“The list of names on that trophy is very special,” Hovland said. “Obviously it might not be a marathon, but it feels more like a sprint. It’s obviously a marathon starting this week. But it’s hard to win the FedEx Cup if you haven’t played well in the last few weeks. It’s just a chance to win the FedEx Cup.” An impressive list of names that have won the championship.”
Hovland joins the likes of former FedEx Cup champions Tiger Woods, McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, and others.
One of the most unexpected was Hovland’s path to the East Lake Golf Club. He did not start playing golf until he was eleven years old. His father, Harald, worked as an engineer for a year in St. Louis and brought home a collection of clubs for his son.
Hovland trained at an indoor golf facility and played outdoors when there was no snow on the ground. There is about six to eight hours of daylight during the winter months, and Hovland passed the time by watching swing tutorials on YouTube. The good news: There are about 18 to 19 hours of daylight during the height of summer. Hovland did not leave the golf course until after 10 p.m. on most summer days.
Bratton got his first glimpse of Hovland while watching future Oklahoma State player Christopher Ventura compete in the 2013 European Boys’ Team Championships in Scotland. Hovland was two years younger than him and wasn’t one of Norway’s best players.
Bratton saw enough talent in Hovland to offer him a scholarship in 2015, and he signed with the Cowboys shortly after visiting campus. In 2018, Hovland helped the Cowboys win the team’s national championship. That summer, he won the US Amateur Championship at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Hovland was a lower amateur at the 2019 Masters and then the US Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links in his final tournament as an amateur. A total of 4-under-280 over 72 holes broke Jack Nicklaus’ par score at the amateur group US Open at Cherry Hills in 1960.
Less than a year later, after securing his PGA Tour card with the Korn Ferry Tour, Hovland scored his first win at the 2020 Puerto Rico Open, making a 30-foot birdie putt on the last hole to win. He became the first player from Norway to win on the PGA Tour. Less than 10 months later, he made a 12-foot birdie putt to beat Aaron Wise at the Mayakoba Golf Classic.
Hovland’s win in Puerto Rico taught him something else about his game: He needed to develop a better short game.
“I’m bad at chopping,” Hovland said at the time. “This is something I know I will have to improve if I want to do my best at this level.”
Since his breakout on tour, Hovland has been regarded as one of the best strikers in the world.
England international Matt Fitzpatrick said: “He’s so straight. He’s so precise. The point of turning the green is fantastic. Every time he hits a ball – it looks stupid – the ball always goes forward. There’s not much form really.” He’s always getting ahead, and I think that’s impressive.
What wasn’t impressive until recently, however, was Hovland’s short performance. During the 2020-21 season, he ranked in the top 10 on the tour in hits earned: tee-to-green, out-of-the-pitch and total. He was 124th in strokes gained around the green. Hovland was 191st in that statistic last season.
“His short game (trouble) was overdone,” said Bratton. “When he was younger and during his time here, his short game wasn’t bad. And that wasn’t his strength. It got a bit exposed there on the PGA Tour. He was never very good in the rough. “The best players in the world, you can’t afford to have a point. weakness. When that’s all anyone wants to talk about, it can become something bigger than it needs to be.”
To his credit, Hovland put in more time for chopping. He has been working with short game specialist Joe Mayo. It has been using AimPoint placement technology to help it better read the green since 2020. Developed by Mark Sweeney, it uses physics to help players read the slope of the green.
“I didn’t really notice whether or not that was a weak point,” said Fitzpatrick. “Obviously, statistically, that’s the case and he’s obviously flipped that. So yeah, like anyone who changes a category in that way almost from the bottom up, it’s very impressive.”
Hovland has won twice more this season, at Memorial in June when he beat Denny McCarthy in a select event playoff and then in a playoff last week. He has also won twice on the DP World Tour. Since 2020, only Jon Ram has won more times combined in both Tours with 10 wins.
At Eastlake Golf Club, it all came together in Hovland’s favour. He led the field in hits earned: off the tee (4.814), was fifth in approaches (4.730), eleventh around the green (1.103) and fourth in putts (3.387).
“It’s fun to watch him play golf,” said Bratton. “He actually looks like he likes it. A lot of times when you see good players play, they only look that way when they’re playing great. Sometimes, even when they’re playing great, they don’t look that way. It’s a pleasure to watch Victor play.