ATLANTA – The phone call came last December, after Viktor Hovland had just dusted 19 of the top players in the world in a silly-season exhibition in the Bahamas.
“Joe,” he said, “I’m struggling.”
That’s a relative term for Hovland, of course. He’d been an All-American at Oklahoma State, a U.S. Amateur champion, a seven-time winner around the world. But most of those triumphs had come on pushover resort tracks that surrendered a ton of birdies and didn’t expose the parts of his game that were still under construction.
So last winter, after a two-win season, Hovland phoned instructor Joe Mayo, whom he’d known for about four years. Hovland sent over a handful of videos, and within five minutes Mayo, nicknamed the “Trackman Maestro,” knew the issue and how to address it.
As Mayo explained, the best ball-strikers in history – Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods – lowered their chest toward the ground in transition, and then, as they approached impact, their bodies would stretch and move away from the ground. But Hovland’s chest, Mayo noticed, wasn’t moving fast enough through impact, and staying down for too long, creating significant problems and an inconsistent ball flight. With the help of Jon Sinclair, one of the country’s experts in capturing and analyzing 3D data, Mayo’s suspicions were confirmed: Hovland’s sternum had gotten too far ahead, while his pelvis was moving too far back.
Within a week, Hovland’s tight ball flight had been restored, and he was repeatedly nailing the bullet fade that he favored. Almost overnight, one of the game’s best ball-strikers had gotten a few ticks better. More wins – big wins – were coming, and they all knew it.
“He is a very, very smart kid,” Mayo said. “He can explain what he’s doing like an instructor would. He is, without question, in the top two or three on Tour as far as understanding what he’s actually doing.
“And so, if you give a great athlete and a great golfer good information, then you should see results. And see them quickly. That’s where we are now.”
So, why has this been the best year of Hovland’s career?
It wasn’t as simple as leveling out his shoulder and pelvic tilt.
Hovland was already a world-class player by the time he departed Oklahoma State in summer 2019 following his junior season. The challenge was to narrow the gap between him and the top tier.
Some of those improvements were physical: Hovland, who turns 26 next month, has morphed from a chubby teenager into a chiseled physical specimen boasting tree-trunk thighs and little body fat.
A few of them were strategic: He has turned to stats guru Edoardo Molinari to better understand course management – to know how to maximize his advantages, to know when to attack, to know where he could absolutely not miss.
Other parts were mental: He’s learned, sometimes painfully, that his unforgiving self-talk was damaging his ability to recover, and that patience and passion can work in tandem. “It never gets old watching him play,” said his former college coach, Oklahoma State’s Alan Bratton. “He looks like a kid out there who loves to compete. You don’t always see that – a lot of them out there look miserable even if they’re playing well. But he has a real peace about him now.”
And then came the technical aspects. Growing up in Norway, Hovland’s short game and putting were never a priority, not the way he hit it. “He was so good that it’s easy to think that the ball-striking can overcome that,” Bratton said. But not against the elite competition that the Cowboys played. So, early in his college career, Hovland finally started to put in the time, improving his speed control (the greens were dramatically faster in the States) and stroke to become a consistent, if not dominant, threat. Looking to become less streaky on the greens once he turned pro, Hovland used the COVID-19 break to learn the AimPoint method. Now, even on the practice green before rounds, he straddles the line of his putts, feels the slope in his feet and uses his fingers to set his aim.
“That’s been the most dramatic improvement,” Bratton said. “It’s not just reading it – but he trusts what he reads.”
The final piece was his short game. He was, without exaggeration, one of the Tour’s worst scramblers, ranked 191st out of 193 players during the 2022 season. Famously, after winning in Puerto Rico in 2020, where he overcame a few duffed pitches in the final round, he said bluntly: “I just suck at chipping.”
And that was probably putting it generously.
Hovland and Mayo didn’t even begin addressing Hovland’s greatest deficiency until February, a few months after first correcting his two-way miss. Mayo and one of his close friends, former Tour winner Ben Crane, three-way-called Hovland with what they saw as the fix. For years, Hovland had tried countless methods and cycled through coaches in search of a solution. Almost all of them told him that his problem was a bowed left wrist, but Hovland was unconvinced – that hadn’t stopped Jordan Spieth from becoming a scrambling savant, after all. Sure enough, Mayo and Sinclair’s 3D imaging provided a different reasoning: Hovland’s right shoulder was too low and his pelvis was moving away from the target, leaving him little choice but to bottom out behind the ball with a shallow angle of attack. Since May, when his new technique began to bed in, Hovland has ranked 20th on Tour around the greens.
“They’ve absolutely just gelled with him,” Mayo said. “In my opinion, he’s complete. That doesn’t mean that he won’t sometimes get a little out of whack. But as far as the completeness of the package, he’s got it.”
It doesn’t lead to all of this – trophies, season-long titles, eight-figure bonuses – without an insatiable desire for knowledge and a relentless work ethic. He pounded balls until 10:30 p.m. at the Scottish Open and shut down the range last week in Chicago. “He’s a workhorse,” said caddie Shay Knight. “He wants to get it right.” But he also loves talking shop, obsessed with the question, “Why?” He eagerly dives down golf-instruction rabbit holes on YouTube and Instagram, a habit he developed as a junior during Norway’s 19 hours of daily winter darkness.
“He’s confident enough and driven enough to want to know the truth and strive to see how good he can become,” Bratton said. “Viktor is very cerebral that way, and he has strong convictions but is still coachable. He does a lot of research on his own and forms strong opinions, but then he’s willing to listen and have a back and forth. That shows the confidence that he’s not afraid to try different things in search of improvement.
“He’s trying to close a very fine gap of where he wants to go – tiny, little improvements that can really pay off. There’s a massive hunger there to refine every part of his game.”
It started a few years ago, when he overhauled his method for green-reading. It continued last winter, with the switch to Mayo, who spoke the same technical, nerdy language. And it flourished this spring, with a few lasting changes to his much-maligned short game.
“It became the best year of his career because I was fortunate enough to have an elite talent ask me questions that I knew how to answer,” Mayo said. “I was able to deliver a message that this world-class athlete could use.
“This is all him. All he needed was to hear a voice. He needed to have someone say a few things and ask a few questions to turn his mindset in a different direction. And you’re seeing the finished product. He’s a complete golfer now.”
The result is what happened Sunday at East Lake. There’s an inner peace, a self-assuredness, that wasn’t there three or four years ago.
“Belief,” Hovland said, “was the last missing piece.”
And it partially explains why Hovland has such a short warmup that Mayo and Knight continually look at their watches as the seconds tick down to game time. But then Hovland arrives, 40 minutes before his tee time. He throws down a level on the green and proceeds to putt for eight minutes. Then he heads into the short-game section, into the closely mown area with the grainy Bermuda, and nips perfect pitch after perfect pitch for another seven minutes. And once he actually gets onto the driving range, well, there’s no real work to be done. He’s just getting loose, nothing more. He hits balls for a total of 15 minutes, including just three lashes with his most lethal weapon, the driver.
“It doesn’t take long to warm up a Ferrari,” Knight smiled.
And on this day, no one was zooming past Hovland.
Staked to a six-shot lead at the start of the final round – the same margin, on the same course, that world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler blew in seven holes last year – Hovland never blinked while firing a bogey-free 63 to ward off a furious rally by Xander Schauffele, who closed with 62 and yet never drew closer than three shots.
It was a near-flawless statistical performance, a tour de force that highlighted Hovland’s newly complete game: first in ball-striking, fourth in putting, fifth in approach and – incredibly, for him – 11th in scrambling, converting 12 of 14 opportunities.
Afterward, Knight pulled Hovland close on the 18th green, telling him, “You work your ass off, and this is where you belong.”
With the FedExCup trophy in tow, Hovland has now banked $21.6 million in the past two weeks, and he’ll spend a chunk of that fortune in an upcoming buddies’ trip to Mykonos. But not much else will change. He’ll still listen to his ear-splitting death metal. He’ll still live in his old college town of Stillwater, Oklahoma, and practice with the team. He’ll still dig into his wallet for his Chipotle gold card.
“I don’t need a lot to be happy,” he said. “I’ve found meaning in other places.”
Like on the course, where Hovland has earned the respect of his peers – and that might be most rewarding. Matt Fitzpatrick waited outside the scoring tent to congratulate him. Tommy Fleetwood, his former Ryder Cup partner, was already looking ahead to Rome. And Rory McIlroy, the most decorated European in the game, spoke glowingly about a young player who’s just coming into his own.
Where can Hovland go from here?
Mayo didn’t hesitate.
“Number one in the world,” he said. “I believe he has everything it takes. Will he get there? I don’t know. Can he get there? Absolutely. He’s showing it.”