The entrance to Jernbanetorget, Oslo’s main railway station, is dominated by a large bronze tiger. It’s a nod to Bjørnsterne Bjørnson’s poem “Sidste Sang” from which Norway’s historic capital takes its nickname: Tigerstaden.
The Tiger City.
Assuming he can maintain his current trajectory, it’s surely only a matter of time before that statue is replaced – or at the very least joined – by a similar sculpture of Viktor Hovland.
Still only 23, Hovland was still some months from being born when Tiger Woods won the first of his 15 majors at the 1997 Masters, yet he is the closest thing Norway has, or has ever had, to the former world No.1. And like Woods, he has his father to thank for introducing him to the game.
It was 2008 and Harald Hovland, an engineer, had spent most of the year 4,000 miles from home on a project in St Louis. To kill time, he bought a set of clubs to use at a driving range close to the site. When he returned to Norway at the end of his secondment, he took a junior set back for 11-year-old Viktor.
Unbeknown to Harald or his Russian wife Galina, it was a present that would set their only child on the path to stardom, an unremarkable gift that has, by serendipitous quirk, delivered remarkable results.
Fuelled by an intense passion and quiet perfectionism, Viktor committed himself fully to golf. He would practice on the range at the Drøbak Golf Club deep into the long summer nights on the fringes of the Arctic Circle. In the winter, when the sun rose only briefly, he would grind for hours at an indoor range within a converted airplane hangar.
His tunnel vision became the stuff of local legend. “We used to joke that a bomb could go
off next to Viktor on the training field and he wouldn’t even notice,” his junior coach Nicolai Langeland is on record as saying.
Another of his former coaches, Magnus Ohlsson, remarked: “He’s the only one I know who would keep training even on his birthday, or who would come home from a tournament in Europe, land at Gardermoen Airport in Oslo and head straight to the golf club to practice. In the autumn, he would be furious because the sun went down too early. Then there weren’t enough hours to train.”
In short order, the family mantelpiece began to fill up with silverware. He won title after title and represented Norway and the Continent of Europe at various high-profile events: the Jacques Leglise Trophy, the Youth Olympics, the European Amateur Team Championship, the Eisenhower Trophy and more.
This, in turn, attracted the attention of US college recruiters. Tennessee, Texas Tech, TSU and Oklahoma State all tabled offers. After much deliberation, Hovland accepted the latter and in three hugely successful years at OSU he competed in several NCAA championships, secured first team All-American honours from the Golf Coaches Association, reached the top of the World Amateur Golf Rankings and, in 2018, became the first Norwegian – and only the seventh different European – to win the US Amateur. More of which shortly.
winning the low amateur spoils at both The Masters and US Open in 2019 –
the latter in record-breaking fashion, eclipsing Jack Nicklaus’
previous low total of 282 – Hovland turned professional.
A month into his career, he earned his PGA Tour card for the 2019-20 season by finishing in a tie for second in the Albertsons Boise Open, part of the Korn Ferry Tour Finals. In February 2020, he became the first Norwegian to win on golf’s most lucrative circuit when he won the Puerto Rico Open. Before the year was out, he’d done so again, this time at the Mayakoba Classic. More recently, in June, he won the BMW International Open on the European Tour.
Comfortably ranked within the world’s top-20, he will make his Ryder Cup debut later this year, capping a meteoric rise to the very top of the game.
No wonder he’s smiling…
* * *
You’re about to make your Ryder Cup debut. How excited are you?
It’s going to be incredible. I’ve watched countless Ryder Cups since I was a kid, rooting for Team Europe and, you know, the last ten or 15 years, it’s been a good time to do it, so hopefully I can be part of keeping that streak going.
You’re obviously making a cool piece of history this year as the first Norwegian to play in the match. How will that be received back home?
don’t know about regular people tuning in to watch it but if you play
golf, you’re probably going to pay attention – a bit like anywhere in
the world, really. If you like golf, you love the Ryder Cup. But you
know, it’s cool. As a kid, I would spend a big part of the day on my
couch, in front of the TV and fist-pumping whenever a putt for Team
Europe would go in, so to think I’m going to be a part of that now and
claim that little bit of history, it’s pretty neat.
What are your favourite memories of watching the Ryder Cup as a kid?
The year at Medinah was pretty special. I can’t remember the whole timeline because it got pretty crazy on that Sunday as we know but I clearly remember Justin Rose clutching-up to get a half from his match from Phil Mickelson and [Ian] Poulter getting a good win against Webb Simpson. It seemed like we won the last couple of holes in every match. It was just bonkers.
You’re obviously primarily based in the States on the PGA Tour. Can that be an advantage for you this year in particular?
I think so, especially with the American crowd. Playing so much out there means that I at least have an idea of what it’s going to be like!
Don’t worry, they don’t tend to give rookies that hard a time…
Ha! We’ll see about that! I’m not sure they’re going to go easy on me but we’ll see how it goes. As long as we get the right result, that’s all that matters.
* * *
It was Hovland's win in the 2018 US Amateur that gave the first meaningful
notice of his talent. He wrapped up his six matches in a combined 104
holes, matching the mark for the fewest holes played by a champion since
1979. He trailed for only one hole all week and at no point in his
final 86. Of the 104 holes he played, he won 44. It was an outrageously
emphatic victory in the most competitive, most prestigious amateur
tournament on the planet.
His form in the sport’s paid realm has been equally impressive. In only his eighth PGA Tour round, he closed with a 64 in the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit. That began a record-breaking sequence of 19 consecutive sub-70 rounds on the tour, two more than the previous record set by Bob Estes in 2001.
Those who know him best will tell you that’s just typical of Hovland, who has routinely achieved the unlikely and impressive. He learned English, for example, by watching historical films such as Amistad and Lincoln in between listening to Metallica, System of a Down and Tool. His fluency now would put many native speakers to shame.
Unsurprisingly, his performances have caught the eye of his peers. How couldn’t they? The man who will captain him in this year’s Ryder Cup, Padraig Harrington, has said that he “looks like he belongs”. Tiger Woods reckons he has “such a bright future ahead of him”.
OSU alum Rickie Fowler agrees. “Hovie’s had a great career so far,” he
told bunkered. “It’s been a short one so far but he’s making the most of
it. He’s a great player. He drives it awesome – I actually think that
may be one of the strongest parts of his game – he’s a great iron
player, he’s got great hands and when he gets the putter going, things
can happen like his win in the BMW.
"He’ll be a good young addition to the European squad. He doesn’t need a whole lot of advice. He’ll be on an experienced European team who’ve been doing alright the last 30 years or so, so I think he’ll be just fine.”
Just fine if he can harness those Day One jitters…
* * *
A lot of is made of how nerve-wracking the first tee is in the Ryder Cup, particularly for rookies. Have you given any consideration to that yet?
I’ve heard some stories of guys sky-ing their first tee shot. Was it maybe Webb who did that at Gleneagles? So, yeah, I’m going to try not to do that but, you know, it’s just one of those things. You’ve got to embrace the situation, stick to your routine and put the club on it.
You don’t seem like the sort of guy who gets too affected by nerves. Is that fair?
Oh, I can get pretty nervous but a lot of the time that’s because I want it too bad. There’s a lot of self-induced pressure. If I hit a couple of bad shots early, I can kind of get a little jittery and maybe don’t commit as well as I should to the next couple of shots. It can be a conscious decision on my part to snap out of that but it’s weird, it’s something that changes from day to day. Sometimes you feel really comfortable and others you don’t have your ‘A’ game and that’s when you can start to feel the nerves kick a bit more. With any luck, that won’t happen at Whistling Straits.
We all know how much of an influence your fellow Norwegian Suzann Pettersen has had on the Solheim Cup down the years. Have you reached out to her for any advice about how to prepare for what is, let’s face it, a pretty unusual week?
Not really particularly about that. I get a couple of text messages here and there from her saying, ‘Hey, good playing’. I think she’s back home in Norway now, enjoying the life over there, so I haven’t had a chance to talk to her about the Ryder Cup or anything. Not yet, anyway.
Suzann was talismanic for the European Solheim Cup team. It seems like you’re in a good place to potentially do likewise with the Ryder Cup over the next decade or so.
Man, that would be really cool. We’re going to start with this first one, though, and see how it goes. I’m feeling good about it. I’ve played some of my best golf in matchplay and I hope to continue that trend in Wisconsin.
* * *
Wisconsin. It’s there, roughly 400 miles from St Louis where the story began, that another chapter of Viktor Hovland’s own personal golf fairytale will be written.
The boy from the 'Land of the Midnight Sun' has become a man in the 'Royal & Ancient Game'. Next stop: major glory?
To the Viktor, the spoils.
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This piece first appeared in issue 187 of bunkered (July 2021). To subscribe, click here. International subscriptions also available.