OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – Viktor Hovland and his caddie, Shay Knight, had a tough conversation last week, Hovland having shot a final-round 69 for a T13 at the FedEx St. Jude Championship.
At 133rd for the season in Final Round Scoring Average on the PGA TOUR, the young Norwegian felt he wasn’t doing Sundays very well.
Well, so much for all that.
Hovland made 10 birdies and one bogey for a course-record 61 – including a 7-under-par 28 on the back nine – and a come-from-behind, two-shot victory over Scottie Scheffler (66) and Matt Fitpatrick (66) at the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields.
“To win at a place like this and amongst the best players in the world, it’s pretty cool,” said Hovland, whose fifth PGA TOUR win moved him from 7th to 2nd in the FedExCup. “And to do it that way, making seven birdies the last nine holes …”
It was the lowest finish by a winner on TOUR this season, Hovland’s career low, and the lowest score in the history of the FedExCup Playoffs. He made 12 threes in what was close to a flawless round: 12/14 fairways (he led the field for the week at 43/56), 16/18 greens hit, first in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green, 2nd in Strokes Gained: Putting.
Scheffler, who started the day tied at the top with Fitzpatrick, three ahead of Hovland and Rory McIlroy, birdied two of the first three holes, three of the first six, and led for most of the day. The last five holes, however, featured a dramatic reversal. Scheffler played them in 1 over par, while Hovland, playing up ahead, blitzed them in 4 under.
“He was on automatic,” said caddie Knight. “He’s such an aggressive player, and when he’s on, he’s got no fear. He tries to birdie every hole. He’s been playing well the last couple weeks. He played well last week, but Sunday wasn’t great. He kind of feels that Sundays haven’t been his best, and we spoke about that last week and he did what he did today. It was super-impressive.”
McIlroy shot 66 playing alongside Hovland and felt like he was stuck in neutral.
“I sort of realized around like 14, 15 something pretty special was happening,” McIlroy said.
Knight, too, sensed some magic in the air.
“Probably 14 when he hit that 8-iron out of the rough and knocked it to a foot,” he said. “That was when I thought it was going to be one of those days where things happen for us.”
Far from lamenting his close call, Fitzpatrick merely laughed it off.
“Yeah, played great,” he said. “Can’t do anything about 61. I did just see Viktor, I called him a little s—. But for me, just really pleased again that I played really well final round in contention with World No. 1, and I didn’t lose it. Someone else came from behind and won it.”
Hovland is still only 25, but one of the themes of this season has been maturity. Some of that is, experience, and a lot has resulted from his work with Joseph Mayo, who teaches at The Summit Club for Discovery Land Company in Las Vegas, and who urged Hovland to throttle back.
“I’m watching this kid hit his ball into places where Harry Houdini couldn’t get it up and down,” Mayo said after Hovland won the Memorial Tournament presented by Workday. He brought in DP World Tour player and statistician Edoardo Molinari for backup.
“Dodo (Molinari) said a great iron player is short-siding himself 15% of the time,” Mayo said. “Viktor was twice that. You can’t outrun that. I showed him the data, and he said, ‘Wow.’”
Hovland had another realization at the FedEx St. Jude at TPC Southwind last week. He got off to such a sluggish start with a first-round 72 that one of his friends screen-grabbed the leaderboard showing him in near last place. But he rebounded with scores of 64-65-69 to finish T13.
“I still felt like I was in contention on Sunday, an outside chance,” he said at Olympia Fields. “I think that was just a great reminder that OK, I don’t have to play perfect golf to be up there.”
Thus freed up, he nearly achieved perfection. His 61 at Olympia Fields on Sunday was two better than the next lowest round, 63s by Russell Henley (T8) and Tom Kim (T10), and made the 66s shot by Scheffler, Fitzpatrick and McIlroy seem pedestrian by comparison.
Although Hovland hadn’t been the story all week, he’d bided his time.
“Joe and I have talked to each other a lot about that, just because you’re seven shots (behind) with the weekend to go doesn’t mean you’re out of it,” he said. “Just got to make good decisions, always just plug along, and if you’re right there, you might just snatch it and win.”
Now comes the TOUR Championship at East Lake, where under the FedExCup Starting Strokes format Hovland will start two behind No. 1 Scheffler. After that it’s off to the Ryder Cup in Rome.
“He just keeps his foot on the pedal,” said McIlroy, who will be one of his teammates.
It was an apt analogy at the BMW, where Hovland had raced to the checkered flag in a finish that left all those who saw it gasping for air.
OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – It can be tempting, given all that’s in play at the BMW Championship, to take your eyes off the road. Who will reach the 30-man TOUR Championship in Atlanta? What about the Ryder Cup? What’s the value of taking the top seed into East Lake with the Starting Strokes format? And hey, look over there, it’s a course-record-tying 62 by Sam Burns in the third round, a day after Max Homa shot the same score!
The BMW Championship, like high-speed racing, is an object lesson in staying in the present, and even the leaders are not immune to letting the mind wander.
“Yeah, there’s no guarantee I’m in Atlanta yet,” said 54-hole co-leader Matt Fitzpatrick (66, 11 under), who is tied with Scottie Scheffler (64) and is projected to move from 40th to fifth in the FedExCup standings. “I’ve got to tap in on Sunday and in a good position. Yeah, happy to give myself at least a chance going into tomorrow.”
Scheffler and Fitzpatrick won last season’s Masters Tournament and U.S. Open, respectively.
That’s fitting; Olympia Fields has presented a major-like test.
“I don’t really pay attention to what’s going on with the leaderboards, especially when it comes to projections,” said Scheffler, who needed just 25 putts, eight fewer than the day before. “It was Saturday out here, so I’m not really too concerned about next week. I was just trying to have a good round of golf and move my way up the leaderboard.”
Brian Harman, the reigning Open champion, shot 67 and is 10 under par, just one back, while Homa overcame a triple-bogey 7 at the seventh for 71 and was 9 under, two back.
“Yeah, it’s hard, obviously,” Homa said, when asked if he’s tempted to look ahead. “But you can have the thoughts and some you can focus on and some you can kind of let keep floating by. It pops up in your head. I know if you win this event or at least I do, I’ll be No. 1 going into next week. But then you’ve got to play good next week.
“You definitely think about it,” he continued, “but I didn’t really focus on it. I was glad that today didn’t feel like it was some mental issue, it was just golf is hard some days.”
Viktor Hovland (65) and Rory McIlroy (67) are 8 under, just three back.
Burns is one of a handful of players vying for a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Alas, he hasn’t had a top-10 finish since May. On Saturday he made eight birdies and no bogeys and now finds himself four back at 7 under par.
“It’s a hard, hard game; it can really beat you up at times,” Burns said.
Justin Rose (68), Xander Schauffele (67), and Denny McCarthy (65) are also at 7 under. Only Schauffele, at 19th, seems safe for the TOUR Championship. Rose is No. 32, McCarthy 34.
“Well, I’m in the hunt to win a tournament, too,” McCarthy said, when asked about his FedExCup number and odds of making the TOUR Championship. (He’s projected 30th.)
Saturday brought gusts that dried the course and seemed to bother players on short putts. McIlroy missed a par putt from 2 feet, 10 inches at the 10th hole. Homa missed from 2 feet, 2 inches at the seventh, making triple.
“Yeah, I think it’s a combination of wind and greens are getting a little choppy, and they just sometimes do some funny things,” said McIlroy, who went 4 under through six but missed birdie putts from 8 and 5 feet, respectively, on 16 and 17. “I’m not surprised that guys are missing a few short ones out there.”
Homa felt his short miss was a fluke.
“My goals have just been to have mental goals and control my internal state really, and I thought I did a great job,” he said after bouncing back with birdies on two of the last four holes. “I didn’t feel like I played that bad.
“I had one very bizarre hole, and other than that, like I just swung the club really well.”
From the BMW trophy to TOUR Championship spots to Ryder Cup implications – the top six on the U.S. points list after the BMW will make the team – there will be much to watch Sunday. Viewers will need to simultaneously keep watch of two and sometimes three divergent storylines, even training their eyes in opposite directions like a hammerhead shark. It could be a very bizarre day, even for those with an inside path to the checkered flag.
OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – Five years ago this week, Max Homa made four consecutive birdies in the second round of the Korn Ferry Tour Regular Season finale to make the cut and keep his job. Homa is often asked about the importance of this streak in his career, which has snowballed to six TOUR wins and worldwide stardom.
The significance of “the streak” is an often-used narrative around these parts, but it’s a true one. Homa keeps building and building, the latest evidence a second-round, 8-under 62 at the BMW Championship, a course record at Olympia Fields Country Club (North Course), a historic Chicagoland venue that has hosted four major championships.
Homa leads by two strokes into the weekend at 10-under total. A win this week would move him atop the FedExCup standings heading into the TOUR Championship.
There’s plenty motivating Homa this week: he wants to automatically qualify for his first U.S. Ryder Cup Team (the six automatic qualifiers are finalized after the BMW Championship), and a top-two finish at Olympia Fields would do the trick. There’s also the matter of the FedExCup; the leader after the BMW Championship will begin their week at 10-under par at East Lake, under the Starting Strokes format.
“I told (Captain) Zach (Johnson) last year I was kissing up to him, but then he also said, ‘Well, I’d like to not have to pick you,’ and I said all right, there’s my promise, I’ll try to get an automatic,” Homa said Friday. “That would be really cool. That’s been kind of my goal since these Playoffs started, to get into that top six.
“All that obviously takes some great golf. You’re playing against a lot of great players. It has been fun keeping that goal in mind because you’re competing against the best Americans, which is a tall task.”
The world is Homa’s oyster. Happy wife, happy life, as they say; his wife Lacey playfully joked that he needed to keep his media obligations to 15 minutes. The Homas were in no hurry to depart the property, though, interacting with friends and fans between interviews outside the stately Olympia Fields clubhouse. Homa has previously won in Chicago (the Korn Ferry Tour’s 2016 Rust-Oleum Championship), and he’s in midway pole position to procure more hardware in the Windy City.
Homa spent ample time on the practice green Thursday night, leading to a hot putter Friday; he made six birdies on the back nine, 10 overall. He leads the field in Strokes Gained: Putting and ranks No. 11 in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green.
Last month, Homa broke a personal barrier with his first top-10 finish at a major, a T10 at The Open Championship. He has bigger dreams in golf’s four most prestigious events, of course, but he made sure to recognize the moment, tweeting “first top ten in a major (finally)” after signing his card that afternoon. He finished T6 at the FedEx St. Jude Championship in his next start, entering this week at No. 6 on the FedExCup, very much a leading contender for the season-long title. His play so far this week has done nothing to suggest otherwise.
Homa has ascended into the top 10 in the world, and he might lead the FedExCup after this week. But whatever he does in this game (and it might be great things), he’ll be forever grounded in the knowledge that he has fought back to the game’s upper echelon after losing his card and returning to the Korn Ferry Tour, not once but twice.
It’s a part of his story, a part he doesn’t shy away from rehashing. He knows it can inspire others and provide appreciation for what he has done.
“Feels like forever ago, but I think about it all the time,” Homa said Friday of those four straight closing birdies. “It’s just crazy sometimes walking up the 18th hole here today and just thinking about – I don’t know if that would have happened had it not been for those four holes in a row, so it was pretty cool to look back on it and reflect on it, and it gives me a lot of appreciation for what I’m doing.”
Some get their 15 minutes of fame; some get a lifetime of it. Whatever it is for Homa, he’ll relish the journey and see what it brings. Maybe it will bring a FedExCup title.
OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – When it comes to the cadence of a PGA TOUR season, it’s not always how you start, but how you finish. Exhibit A is Rory McIlroy, the only three-time FedExCup champion, who outdid himself in that regard at the BMW Championship on Thursday.
After making seven pars to open the tournament, he birdied five of his last 11 holes for a 65. After hitting just three fairways off the tee, he was so good at getting the ball in the hole – three-for-three in scrambling and a chip-in birdie on 17 – that it didn’t matter.
“I mean, only hitting three fairways today and coming up with 65 is a bit of a bonus,” said McIlroy, who is tied at the top of the leaderboard with Brian Harman and projected to move from FedExCup No. 3 to No. 1. “But with the golf course being so soft, it’s almost an advantage to be playing out of the rough going into some of these greens because you know the ball is not going to spin.
“I’m not saying I was trying to aim for the rough,” he continued, “but I was, I think, a lot of the tee shots I was just being super aggressive because I knew in the back of my mind I wasn’t really being penalized for it. The golf course is certainly not playing the way it played (for the BMW) in 2020. That was not my approach a few years ago here.”
Thursday’s highlight was McIlroy’s birdie on 17 after he’d missed way left off the tee. From heavy rough, with a 7-iron, he slashed at the ball and watched it narrowly miss the tree trunk and branches, skitter through a bunker and roll over the green. From there he chipped in, smiling broadly at his most improbable birdie since the Genesis Scottish Open.
It was in Scotland, of course, that he birdied his last two holes in heavy wind last month for his second win this season and 24th overall on TOUR.
“The window was OK,” McIlroy said of his shoot-the-gap second shot at Olympia Fields on Thursday. “It was more there was a couple of branches above the window I was looking at, and I was like, if it hits those, it’s just going to drop down sort of near that front left bunker and I’ll have a decent angle down the green and mostly have at least a 10-footer or less to save par.
“It was a bit of a hit and a hope,” he added. “…It was either sort of chip it out or try to take it on, and it’s only Thursday, I thought, ‘What the heck, I’ll take it on and see what happens.’”
And that wasn’t even his best shot – at least according to McIlroy. He said he was more impressed with his 70-foot pitch from gnarly rough behind the third green, his ball coming to rest just over 2 feet from the pin for a kick-in par. In the end, he was so happy with his final score that he shrugged off the fact that he was 50th out of 50 players in driving accuracy.
“I don’t lose a lot of confidence with the driver,” he said. “One bad day is not going to make me lose any sleep.”
He was so unconcerned, he added, that he wouldn’t even be going to the range for a late-afternoon session in order to get things sorted out for Round 2.
“No, I’ve got seven more rounds in these Playoffs,” McIlroy said. “I’ll just conserve my energy.”
Spoken like a guy who has done this a time or two.