ATLANTA – Marty Jertson’s phone rang around 1 p.m. on May 20. The caller was Joe Mayo, the man who had become Viktor Hovland’s instructor at the start of the year. Jertson was surprised to see Mayo’s name pop up on his screen since it was only 90 minutes before his prized pupil was scheduled to tee off in the second-to-last group of the PGA Championship’s third round.
Jertson, Ping’s vice president of fitting and performance, was even more surprised when he heard Hovland’s voice on the phone. One of the most important rounds of his life was quickly approaching. But Hovland couldn’t help himself. He had questions that needed to be answered. On this rainy day at Oak Hill Golf Club, Hovland needed to know how the precipitation was going to impact things like spin rates and friction on the face of his clubs. Hovland, Mayo and Jertson spent about five minutes on the phone breaking down the science behind the inclement conditions.
“He’s really into the root of ‘why,’’” Jertson said. “It’s like an engineer asking ‘why’ five times and every time he does, it opens another door.”
Hovland has never been afraid to experiment. He’s dived deep into YouTube, watching underground teachers with cult followings, the garage bands of golf instructors, break down the finest details of the swing. He’s used unique drills, sometimes in competition, and hired one of the game’s top data analysts. His quest for more speed led him to use a longer driver and speed train so obsessively that his team had to tell him to back off, lest he hurt himself. And, the thing that may make him the biggest outlier, is the fact that he doesn’t watch sports – almost unheard of among his ESPN-obsessed peers – preferring podcasts that teach him how to live even more optimally.
“I’m a pretty analytical person and I do like to try new things because it’s fun,” Hovland said Sunday evening, the FedExCup sitting alongside him. “You never know what’s going to be on the other side of that door.
“If you see an improvement it’s like, ‘Okay, hang on, we’re on to something. Let’s go down this rabbit hole and see where it leads.'”
Hovland’s insatiable desire for improvement culminated with the biggest moment of his career on Sunday: being crowned the 2023 FedExCup champion.
Hovland’s victory in the TOUR Championship was his third win of the season, the grand finale to a breakout season that has long been expected but never guaranteed in this fickle game. It is the fruit of his insatiable drive for improvement, of his willingness to try anything and everything that may make him better. Small improvements, including some that are so minute that they’re imperceptible to the naked eye, delivered the small margins that offer exponential rewards.
Even more impressive is the perspective he’s brought this year to both the good experiences and the bad, the wins and the losses. Hovland embodies the growth mindset that researcher Carol Dweck brought into the mainstream. A person with such an outlook sees every situation, even negative ones, as an opportunity to learn and improve. It’s given him peace regardless of the result.
“I think that’s been really cool, to just try to learn from any experience,” he said. “What happened? What went wrong? What can I learn from it? I feel like I’ve used those opportunities to just get better the next time around.”
Like his work on other facets of his game, this required intense effort because if there was a downside to Hovland’s hunger, it was a harsh and unforgiving response to his own mistakes.
“Viktor is a perfectionist,” Shay Knight, Hovland’s caddie since 2019, said. “He wants to be so precise. He is a workhorse. He wants to get it right. He wants to be the best person he can be. And that’s what he has done.”
He didn’t miss a cut all season and finished outside the top 25 just five times in his 23 starts. He won three of the TOUR’s biggest titles – Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament presented by Workday, the BMW Championship and TOUR Championship – and was a consistent contender.
He was runner-up at the PGA Championship, challenging Brooks Koepka until a double-bogey at the 16th hole. He was seventh at the Masters after starting the final round in the second-to-last group. And he finished third at THE PLAYERS. Those major performances followed last year’s Open Championship, where he played alongside Rory McIlroy in the final group before shooting 74 and finishing fourth.
Hovland saved his best for last, winning the final two events of the FedExCup Playoffs. There was no one better over that fortnight. His record 61 a week ago in at Olympia Fields, a former U.S. Open venue, was unfathomable, especially his back-nine 28.
He was untouchable at East Lake.
Hovland’s BMW win put him second in the FedExCup standings, allowing him to start the TOUR Championship at 8-under par, trailing only Scottie Scheffler. Hovland pulled away from the field on the tournament’s toughest day, shooting 66 on Friday while his closest competitors, Scheffler and Collin Morikawa, both shot 73. It gave Hovland a six-stroke lead entering the final round.
It was the same margin that Scheffler lost to Rory McIlroy last year. Hovland didn’t waver, even as playing partner and eventual runner-up Xander Schauffele applied pressure early and often. Hovland’s 63 was the second-best score of the day, bettered only by Schauffele’s 62.
“He’s just a bulldog. He really is,” said Knight. “He has so much fight in him.”
Schauffele birdied four of Sunday’s first six holes but didn’t gain any ground on Hovland, who did the same. Schauffele pulled within three after birdies at 11 and 12, but it set the stage for Hovland’s most important shot of the day — a 23-foot par putt that kept Schauffele from creeping even closer.
“That was the tournament right there,” said Knight.
Both players parred 15, and Hovland wrested control of the tournament with birdies on 16 and 17. Another birdie on 18 gave Hovland a five-stroke victory. The FedExCup Starting Strokes provided the final margin. Both Hovland and Schauffele took 261 strokes for the week, tied for the lowest in the field and seven better than the next-best player. But Hovland started the week with a five-stroke advantage over Schauffele.
Hovland’s improved short game receives much of the credit for this season’s success, but it did more than lower his scores. It gave him belief and eased his anxiety. Joined with improved course management and a commitment to be more forgiving toward himself, it was enough for Hovland to have the best season of his career.
“I believe I have all the shots,” Hovland said. “I think just as soon as I made that mindset change, everything started to kind of come together.”
It was a conscious choice, one that Hovland realized was necessary to unlock his potential.
Hovland’s change to his course management was inspired by Edoardo Molinari, the DP World Tour player who moonlights as a data analyst to several of the world’s top players. He convinced Hovland to be less aggressive with his approach shots because he was short-siding himself too often and putting even more stress on his short game.
And it was Mayo, the instructor formerly known as “Trackman Maestro” on social media, who radicalized Hovland’s short game, convincing him to hit down on the ball more steeply even though it goes against today’s teaching du jour. Hovland and Mayo share a love for the data that today’s technology can provide, as well as poker, which requires a mastery of probabilities that is beneficial in golf. Hovland has gotten his new instructor interested in UFOs, as well.
“For a lot of athletes, myself included, it’s hard to be curious because you’re afraid of losing what you have,” said Hovland’s countryman, Marius Thorp, a former DP World Tour player who now calls Hovland’s shots for his many fans back in Norway.
Not Hovland. Molinari said he is “not scared to hear the hard facts about his game.”
Hovland’s short game has received outsized attention for three years, after he declared, “I suck at chipping,” immediately after his first PGA TOUR victory. Hovland’s former college coach at Oklahoma State, Alan Bratton, said Hovland’s willingness to be so open in that moment showed more than a deficiency with a wedge in hand.
“Have you ever heard another TOUR player say that?” Bratton asked. “They’re usually not willing to be that vulnerable, but he was confident enough to be honest.”
It reminded Bratton of the time Hovland played his first DP World Tour event. He shot 68 in the first round but Hovland’s performance got attention for a reason other than his score. Hovland started using a drill known as the double-pump on the course. He would swing to the top, then pump his hands up and down before starting his down swing. Bratton’s phone was blowing up with curious observers, so he reached out to Hovland.
“I asked, ‘How long have you been doing it?’” Bratton recalled recently. “He said since this morning.”
Hovland’s swing has always had unique characteristics, but the results have been undeniable. He has long possessed a rare combination of distance and accuracy, one that even the objectively-minded Mayo struggles to explain.
“The bottom line is he has the genetic ability to put a golf club on the back of the ball at 120 miles an hour and most of us don’t,” Mayo said. “If we could all do it, if we could all teach it, then we’d all be out here on TOUR. But that’s the differentiator, that’s the separator, and I tell Viktor, ‘That’s the good stuff.’”
It’s how Hovland was able to author a dominant victory in the 2018 U.S. Amateur and then finish 12th in the following year’s U.S. Open, breaking Jack Nicklaus’ tournament record for low 72-hole score by an amateur. He fell just short of earning his TOUR card in just five starts after turning pro in 2019, then quickly got the job done in the Korn Ferry Tour Finals. He set the PGA TOUR record for consecutive rounds in the 60s before earning his first win in early 2020. It took him just a year to crack the top 50 in the world ranking.
Hovland, 25, entered this season with three PGA TOUR victories and two on the DP World Tour. He doubled his PGA TOUR win tally in his past eight starts. Now he is the third-youngest winner of the FedExCup, behind only Justin Thomas (2017) and Jordan Spieth (2015).
It was Hovland’s ball-striking ability that gave Mayo confidence that they could solve Hovland’s chipping. The secret was steepening his club’s angle of attack at impact, a contrast to the preferred method of the day. According to Mayo, Hovland has been approximately 50th on TOUR in Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green from THE PLAYERS Championship to the FedEx St. Jude Championship, the first event of the FedExCup Playoffs, a marked improvement for a player who ranked near the bottom of that stat a year ago.
Former TOUR winner Ben Crane has befriended Hovland this year as a fellow student of Mayo. They shared a house at Pebble Beach, where Hovland admitted that he couldn’t hit the short game shots that many of his peers could pull off. But during a recent practice session with Mayo in Nashville, Tennessee, Crane saw how Hovland’s weakness had become a strength.
“Viktor’s unique in the sense that I think he understands the golf swing as good as any player I’ve ever met,” Crane said. “A lot of people don’t really want to know how to do it, just tell me what to do. But Viktor enjoys knowing the how and the why.”
But Crane was just as impressed with Hovland’s willingness to engage in conversation on a wide range of topics and also his willingness to joke and have fun with Crane’s children. His 14-year-old son has become such a big Hovland fan that they drove from Nashville to Atlanta to watch Hovland compete at East Lake. And Crane saw Hovland’s competitive side when he was pitted in a ping-pong match with that same son. Crane didn’t think the inexperienced Hovland had a chance, but he grinded out a shocking victory that led to cheers and shouts so loud that Crane’s wife had to ask what was going on up there.
“Winners find a way,” Crane said.
Viktor Hovland has always found a way.
ATLANTA – The sun had set and East Lake Golf Club was ensconced in darkness when Viktor Hovland completed his final interviews Saturday. He was headed for the cold-plunge tub after he finished his obligations, a crucial part of the post-round recovery process.
Hovland needed something to cool him off.
The winner of last week’s BMW Championship is now running away with the TOUR Championship as he seeks his first FedExCup. Hovland will take a six-shot lead into the final round of the FedExCup finale.
“To win the FedExCup is pretty cool,” he said. “That’s where all the tournaments we play earlier in the year leads to.”
Hovland has displayed a well-rounded game all season and saved his best for last.
A win this week would be his third in his last eight starts. His final-round 61 at the BMW was arguably the round of the year and one of the best final rounds in recent memory.
On the most difficult day of this week, he shot 66 to pull away from his closest pursuers. Collin Morikawa and Scottie Scheffler combined to make just two birdies Saturday and both shot 73. Morikawa had set East Lake’s 36-hole scoring record to vault from nine back and into a share of the halfway lead. Scheffler, the world’s No. 1 player, began the day in third place, two behind the pair.
Now only three players are fewer than nine shots back.
Hovland’s closest pursuer is now Xander Schauffele, who stands at 14 under par with the FedExCup Starting Strokes. Schauffele won the 2017 TOUR Championship and has finished in the top five of the FedExCup in five of the past six seasons, including a pair of runners-up (2019, ’20). He is seeking his first victory in the TOUR’s season-long points race.
Hovland is tied with Morikawa for the lowest 54-hole score this week, 12-under 198, while Schauffele has taken 199 strokes. Their FedExCup Starting Strokes represent the difference on the leaderboard. Because Hovland entered this week ranked second in the FedExCup, he started play Thursday at 8 under par. Schauffele was 2 under, while Morikawa was 1 under. Morikawa is tied for third place at 13 under par with Keegan Bradley.
Hovland vaulted into second in the FedExCup with his win at the BMW Championship, where he shot closed with that 61 on a former U.S. Open venue, Olympia Fields. He shot 28 on the back nine Sunday. It was his second victory of the season after a win in June at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide. That’s another event where ballstriking is a premium.
At East Lake, it’s especially important because it is difficult to get approach shots close out of the bermudagrass rough. But those who find the fairways have plenty of birdie opportunities.
A six-shot lead is not unassailable – Scottie Scheffler lost one in the final round of the 2022 TOUR Championship, and Morikawa did the same at this year’s Sentry Tournament of Champions – but no one has ever lost a larger one. In the past 50 years, there have been just seven players who failed to win after taking a six-shot win into the final round.
Hovland’s robotic ballstriking makes the final round feel like a formality. Schauffele shot 68 on Saturday, but when asked to describe his round, he could only say, “Not good enough.”
“I know what I need to do,” Schauffele said. “I need to go out and try and put as much pressure on him tomorrow on that front nine as I can and hope for the best.”
“He’s just playing unbelievable golf. He’s been working really hard. I saw him working hard through the playoffs there. I was out late and he was one of the guys I always saw until dark as well.”
Hovland leads the field in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green, Driving Accuracy, Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green and Average Proximity to the Hole. His two bogeys this week are the fewest in the field. His well-publicized improvements to his short game have made him tough to beat, as his biggest weakness is now a strength. His two bogeys this week are the fewest in the field.
“I feel like I’ve just become a little bit more complete, and I don’t have to hit it my best to be in contention,” Hovland said. “I don’t have to hit every shot pure. I can miss it slightly and get up-and-down and move on.”
It’s shown in some of the game’s biggest events – he finished in the top 20 in all four majors this year, including a T7 at the Masters and runner-up at the PGA Championship. And now he’s been the best player at the FedExCup finale, separating himself from a field comprised of the top 30 players this season
Hovland made two birdies on his first 11 holes of the day, but because of the struggles of Scheffler and Morikawa, it was enough to build a four-shot advantage. That’s when lightning caused a one-hour delay. Hovland birdied his first two holes after the delay, as well. He bogeyed the 14th but immediately birdied the island-green 15th.
He could have pulled even farther ahead but he missed birdie putts of 11 feet or shorter on the final three holes. Even after those misses, Hovland has control entering the final round at East Lake.
“The list of names that’s been on that trophy is pretty special,” Hovland said of the FedExCup. “Obviously it’s … not a marathon, but it feels more like a sprint.”
In this race, Hovland will be tough to catch.
ATLANTA – A mishit in a practice round can be credited for Collin Morikawa’s record-setting performance at the TOUR Championship.
The leaderboard may say that Morikawa is tied for the lead after the opening 36 holes at East Lake, but the truth is that he’s been the best player on property. And it hasn’t been close.
His 61 on Thursday was the low score of the day by two strokes. He followed with a 64 on Friday to match the day’s best round. His 36-hole total of 125 not only is five better than anyone else in the field but also is the lowest in East Lake history, breaking Tiger Woods’ record by two. He shot 13-under 127 to open his victory in the 2007 TOUR Championship. In the 22 previous TOUR Championships at East Lake, only one other player, Xander Schauffele in 2022, has broken 130 for the first two rounds.
Morikawa has erased the nine-stroke deficit that he began the week with under the FedExCup Starting Strokes format. That put FedExCup leader Scottie Scheffler at 10 under par before the first round began, with No. 2 Viktor Hovland starting two strokes back. Morikawa, who arrived at East Lake ranked 24th in the season-long standings, began at 1 under par.
Morikawa needed just two rounds to catch them, however. He’s tied for the lead at 16 under par with Hovland, who shot 68-64 in the first two rounds. Scheffler is alone in third, two shots back, after shooting 71-65. Keegan Bradley is in fourth place at 13 under par. His 36-hole total of 10-under 130 (63-67) is the second-best in the field.
“There’s going to be a lot more low scores, a lot more birdies made,” Morikawa said. “I’m going to have to continue that heading into the next two days.”
If he does, he’ll be tough to catch.
Some of the TOUR’s best ballstrikers have assembled atop the leaderboard, and it’s clear why. East Lake’s Bermudagrass rough offers a steep penalty for those who stray from the fairway, making it difficult to hit approach shots close. Many of the greens are well-guarded by bunkers and perched up above the fairway. But players who drive it well are rewarded with copious birdie opportunities, especially in hot and humid weather.
When Morikawa is on, there may not be a better ballstriker on TOUR. And, after his early-week epiphany, his confidence is high.
He’s hit the most fairways (22 of 28) and greens (32 of 36) in the field. No one is hitting his approach shots closer; Morikawa’s average proximity to the hole (23’, 11”) also leads the field. He’s gained the most strokes with his approach play and is second in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, an especially impressive feat considering he’s in the middle of the pack in Driving Distance. And he’s fourth in Strokes Gained: Putting.
Morikawa said this may be the best he’s felt since 2021, which coincidentally is the year he picked up his most recent victory, at The Open Championship. He won his first PGA TOUR title in his sixth start as a professional, then won four times over the following two seasons, including two majors. Going winless over the past two years has galvanized the 26-year-old after the seamless start to his pro career.
“It’s been a grind, it’s been a fight,” Morikawa said earlier this year. “It’s been trying to figure out how to hit shots, how to get the ball in the hole. … But at the end of the day, I keep loving the game more and more. And that’s awesome that even through the ups and the downs and the bad rounds and good rounds, it’s like, I still want to get back out there and figure it out.”
That’s what happened Tuesday, which Morikawa thought would be a light day of practice in the searing heat of Atlanta in August. But then a poor shot in his practice round sent Morikawa to the range for two hours as he “went down the rabbit hole,” in his words. He didn’t want to elaborate on the fix but said it was a small tweak to his setup.
“The quality of the good shots are even better. But the quality of the misses are that much better,” Morikawa said.
He’s on pace for his fourth consecutive season ranked in the top three on TOUR in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green. Only Scheffler ranks ahead of him this year. But Morikawa said the stats don’t tell the entire story. His trusty fade hasn’t been as reliable over the past couple years and his misses weren’t as predictable.
Not anymore. Morikawa’s machine-like ballstriking has returned.
And all it took was one little mishit.
ATLANTA – Rory McIlroy was the center of attention as he warmed up for Thursday’s opening round at the TOUR Championship, but not for the usual reason. One of the game’s most powerful players was sapped of his swing speed as he hit balls gingerly on East Lake’s practice tee.
These were the first balls McIlroy had hit since he left the BMW Championship on Sunday, his normal routine interrupted by a back spasm that struck Tuesday morning while McIlroy was in his at-home gym.
McIlroy re-aggravated the injury while exercising Wednesday at East Lake. Despite a heat index over 100 degrees on Thursday and on-course treatment, the spasm got progressively tighter as his opening round progressed. But birdies at Nos. 13, 15 and 16 put McIlroy under par before his bogey at East Lake’s par-5 18th.
With limited movement in his torso, he had to rely on his arms to generate power. He was still able to rank 10th in Driving Distance (315.9 yards) while hitting half his fairways, but it was the shots where his club had to make contact with the ground that gave him the most trouble.
McIlroy hit just 11 greens and struggled with his short game, ranking 28th and 29th in the 30-man field in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green and Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green, respectively. Chip shots on the second and 11th holes failed to reach the putting surface.
“I hung in there and I just felt like if I could get through today, it’s better than it was yesterday, hopefully tomorrow’s better than it was today, and just sort of try to keep progressing,” McIlroy said. “The fact that I’m only going to be — whatever it’s going to be (three) off the lead, I’m over the moon about.”
McIlroy is still in contention for the ultimate prize because the players who began the day atop the FedExCup Starting Strokes leaderboard could not take advantage of their baked-in advantage.
FedExCup leader Scottie Scheffler started Thursday at 10 under par, two shots ahead of Viktor Hovland. With a triple-bogey at the island 15th, Scheffler shot a 1-over 71 that dropped him from two shots ahead to one behind a trio of leaders: Collin Morikawa, Keegan Bradley and Hovland, who shot a bogey-free 68.
On a day when the scoring average was nearly two strokes under par, the final three groups, comprised of the top six in the FedExCup standings, combined to shoot even par. Only two of those players broke par and none of them shot lower than Hovland’s 68.
The TOUR Championship’s unique format requires players to sit on a lead for four days. Scheffler was the tournament’s leader as soon as he left the BMW Championship on Sunday and Hovland knew he would start the first round in second place.
“You feel like you’re kind of getting chased from the get-go,” said Hovland, who won the BMW with a final-round 61.
With Thursday’s tee times arranged by FedExCup Starting Strokes, the leaders teed off late Thursday. That allowed their pursuers to tee off earlier, when conditions are often a bit more forgiving, and with less pressure. The result is a condensed leaderboard entering Friday that leaves the FedExCup in flux.
Morikawa shot 61 on Thursday to tie the lead, while Bradley shot 63. That score was matched by Adam Schenk, who’s making his TOUR Championship debut. He shares fifth place with Russell Henley, who shot 65.
McIlroy and Rahm, who played together in Thursday’s second-to-last group, are tied for seventh with Matt Fitzpatrick.
Scheffler made birdie on three of his first six holes Thursday and built a five-shot advantage. But his triple at 15 – where he hit his tee shot in the water and three-putted – along with three bogeys led to his second consecutive over-par round at East Lake. He shot 73 in the final round of last season to lose a six-shot lead to McIlroy, who won his record third FedExCup that day.
Scheffler, who returned this week to the same Scotty Cameron that he’s used in all six of his TOUR wins, was just 1 for 4 on putts from 4-8 feet on Thursday and last in the field in Strokes Gained: Putting.
Rahm, who’s won a TOUR-high four times this season, bogeyed Nos. 13-15 before making birdie on the final two holes to shoot 69.
“It is a bit weird starting a tournament with the lead,” said Scheffler, the first player to arrive at East Lake as the FedExCup leader in consecutive years. “It’s a little bit of a blessing to have a pretty bad day and still be in the tournament.”