With eight wins and over $30m in prize money banked just four years into his professional career, Norway’s VIKTOR HOVLAND is one of the biggest stars of the men’s game. Here, the current world no.4 and newly crowned FedEx Cup champion assesses his game, discusses his near misses in the majors, and his hopes of helping Europe to win back the Ryder Cup in Rome
How do you even begin to reflect on what you have achieved so far this year? Three wins, the FedEx Cup title, a whole lot of prize money, and we’re only at the end of August.
Yeah, it’s been a great year. I feel like I’ve taken a lot of forward steps this season – contending in more majors, getting my first win in the US at a big event like The Memorial, and then obviously the last couple weeks have just superseded that. It’s been pretty surreal. Obviously, you dream about such things, but you don’t really expect them to happen, so to have achieved what I have is pretty awesome.
What’s made the difference this year over previous seasons?
The main difference this season has been that I feel like I’ve had a lot of good weeks where I really haven’t felt like I’ve played amazing golf, but I’ve still been able to put a score together. To be able to put myself in a position to win tournaments when I’ve not always had my ‘A’ game has been something that I’m proud of. My short game has got a lot better, which has really allowed me to be able to do that. When my putter gets hot, that can really make up for some bad shots off the tee or some poor iron shots.
Making all those cuts [33 in a row] also shows that my consistency level has been very high. I’ve hit the ball well tee to green, and now with my improvement around the greens, even on my bad ball-striking days I can kind of scrap it together, maybe shoot around even par and then have a good day the next day. I feel like I’m never out of the tournament because of me cleaning up a couple things that haven’t been so good in the past.
Your putter seemed pretty hot during that final round 61 that took you to victory at the BMW Championship. Where does that round rank in your pantheon of rounds during your career, and what did it mean to pull off the win against such a strong field?
It has to be number one. I remember playing a pretty special round during my first year on Tour, I shot seven under at Torrey Pines when it was hailing and windy and that’s probably the best I’ve ever struck it throughout a round. But to shoot 61, and shoot 28 on the back nine, at a course like the Olympia Fields, and under those circumstances, I have nothing that beats that.
Coming back from that far behind against such a strong group of players in front of me was pretty special. I had no option but to just go for it, so in that sense I had nothing to lose.
If you wind back to the end of your college career in 2018, did you ever imagine you would have achieved that you have in just four years?
Yeah, I could only dream about winning these tournaments back in 2018, when I was coming towards the end of my amateur career. I think I’d won one college event before winning the US Amateur, and that kind of changed a lot of things. I got to play in a couple majors as an amateur, then I got my PGA TOUR card, and then a couple months later I won my first PGA Tour event, and then I won my first DP World Tour event, and I’ve just kind of ticked off the boxes from there. But it’s not like I’m expecting to win X number of tournaments or X number of majors. It’s just, okay, this is as good as I am right now, what can I do to get better? And if I get better, I have the chance of winning these events.
Was there a movement when you felt like you had found the belief to perform like you have in these big events or is it just the culmination of a lot of things that you have been working on?
I can’t point to a single or a specific moment, but it’s just when I started to see my short game improve that gave me the belief that I have all the shots. I just saw the shots that I was able to pull off in tournaments and in those stressful situations. I coupled that with the course management stuff and just my general attitude – handling bad bounces, handling bogeys, handling bad shots. Just those three aspects combined, when I started to see that I wasn’t stressed when I showed up to a golf tournament or a golf course. It was like, okay, whatever happens happens. I might play badly and that’s okay. As soon as I made that mindset change everything started to kind of come together.
How would you assess the impact that your work with your new swing coach, Joe Mayo, has had in terms of your improvement?
Yeah, Joe has been awesome. He’s a very technical guy, and he likes math and physics and just deals in facts. We like to measure things. I think we both think alike in a lot of ways. I think it’s been great to have someone that kind of conveys information like that, but also I’d say he’s helped me a lot mentally, too, just understanding tournament golf, tournament pressure.
He’s been out here for a while and he’s a very smart guy. Not just with the golf swing, but he sees the bigger picture in other things, as well. It’s been great to have a person that has that perspective on things.
You’ve won over $20m in the last two events. Do you ever allow yourself to think about the money when you’re playing?
Obviously, we’re playing for a lot of cash, so I’d be lying if I said that it’s not in the back of your mind. But it’s not the front, either. I live in Oklahoma. Money goes a long way there. I don’t need a lot to be happy. I don’t need a lot to live within my means. But obviously it’s nice for my family to have that security, and whatever family I may have in the future. It’s nice to have that, but it’s not something that drives me, it’s not something that gives what I do meaning. I find meaning in other places. But obviously with how society works, money is something you need and I’m grateful that I’ve got some.
You’ve put yourself in contention to win a few majors of late – going out in the last group at the Open at St Andrews last year, second to last group at the Masters this year and then the last group at the US PGA Championship in May. How do look back on those near misses?
Losing sucks at any time, no question, but it is really good to see that things are going in the right direction. It doesn’t really pay to dwell on these things. Yes, you learn from them and try not to repeat whatever mistakes you may have made, but it’s not aways that simple.
In the Open, it was just one of those days. I think I shot 2-over-par on Sunday, but I felt like I hit a lot of good shots. I just didn’t quite get close enough to the pins, especially with how St Andrews was set up. I feel like if I had been in that position a couple years ago, I would have started firing at pins and ended up in all sorts of trouble, so I feel like I handled it ok, but I just didn’t get any momentum going on early and didn’t birdie any of the easier holes.
And at the PGA. Well, the bunker situation on 16, where it plugged and I ended up with a double bogey, kind of stalled things at the wrong time, as I had no time to recover. I felt like I played solid golf in the main, but I had a couple of bad swings and got out of position on a few holes, so had to rely on my short game to save me a few times, but Brooks [Koepka] was hard to catch. It’s not easy going toe-to-toe with a guy who already had four majors to his name.
So I feel like I belong out here. I just have to get a little bit better, and hopefully it goes my way next time.
How important was it for you to get back on to the Ryder Cup team after the result in 2021?
Yeah, obviously the Ryder Cup is the big goal for a lot of players, and having made the team last time, I knew that I never wanted to miss another one if I could possibly help it. Of course, making the team is simply a by-product of playing good golf over the qualifying period, or certainly playing well in some big events, and thankfully I’ve been able to do that.
It was disappointing how things turned out at Whistling Straits, and I wasn’t happy to come away with two half-points from my five matches, so I’m keen to put that right in Rome.
Last year you said that the topography of Marco Simone will make it tough for players to play in all five matches without getting tired. Is that still a concern for you?
Hopefully not for me personally, as I’m pretty fit and young, but I’m not a huge fan of the course. It is up and down a large mountain, so it will be difficult to walk for five or six days. Honestly, I think people will struggle to play 36 holes in a day, and especially the caddies. It’s the same for both teams, but it’s going to be tough for players to play in all five matches.
You seem like a very calm, level-headed kind of guy. Do you feel like you’ve got an inner killer instinct or is that not who you are?
I don’t think it’s something that’s innate in me. I’m not someone who shows a huge amount of emotion on the golf course. Keeping calm helps me perform at a higher level. I’m not the kind of guy who goes crazy when I hole a putt or win a tournament. I might give it a little fist pump or whatever, but the less emotion I can kind of giveaway I think it’s the better for me.
WHAT CLUBS DOES VIKTOR HOVLAND PLAY WITH
Driver: Ping G425 LST (8.4°)
Fairway Woods: TaylorMade Stealth Plus 3 (15°)
Utility: Titleist U505 (21°)
Irons: Ping i210 (4-PW)
Wedges: Ping Glide 4.0 (50°, 56°), Ping Glide 2.0 (60°)
Putter: Ping PLD DS 72
Ball: Titleist Pro V1