Viktor Hovland masters the art of improvement

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.

By Nadeem Faisal Baiga