ATLANTA — Exactly five weeks from now, the United States and Europe will be dueling through the singles matches of the Ryder Cup. If there’s any justice in the golf world, Viktor Hovland and Xander Schauffele will go head-to-head in that match, with the Ryder Cup on the line.
All due respect to Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm and all the other Ryder Cup players (in Koepka’s case, potential players), but nobody’s hotter than Hovland right now, and nobody’s cooler than Schauffele. Their head-to-head, final-round-pairing battle for the FedEx Cup wasn’t quite match play — not when Hovland came into the day with a six-shot lead — but the result was some of the most entertaining eye-to-eye golf of the now-completed 2022-23 season.
Hovland won the day and the FedEx Cup, shooting a -7 on the day and closing out the tournament at -27 with a closing birdie. Schauffele, who finished at -22 thanks to a -8 day, had chopped Hovland’s one-touchdown lead down to a field goal with six holes to play. That set up the defining moment of the tournament: Hovland’s curling, 23-foot par save on the 14th.
That make spared Hovland what would have been just his third bogey of the week, and kept Schauffele three strokes back. Two holes later, he rolled in a 10-foot birdie to extend his lead back to four. He followed that up with a birdie on the 17th, and at that point, the engraving on the FedEx Cup trophy began. One long stroll down the sloping 18th of East Lake later, and the Tour Championship, the FedEx Cup, and an $18 million check were all his.
What distinguishes Hovland is his absolute dialed-in calm. He’ll spend much of a tournament’s early rounds smiling, grinning at even missed putts — of which there aren’t many these days. But on Sunday, he was completely locked in, focused only on the next shot, the next putt, the next moment. Just like he did last week in winning the BMW Championship with a closing 61, Hovland left the smiling behind and focused with unshakable intensity for the entire round.
Schauffele, by this point, has a closet full of bridesmaid’s dresses to go with his Olympic gold medal. He’s still without a major, having finished as high as T2 in both the Masters and the Open Championship. But he’s played with an uncanny steadiness, particularly at East Lake. In 28 rounds, he’s never shot over par. After winning the event in 2017, he’s finished second twice, T2, fourth, T5 and T7.
It was just Schauffele’s luck that he happened to beat Hovland head-to-head on Sunday, -8 to -7, and tied him in absolute score for the entire tournament, -19 apiece. But because of the Tour Championship’s staggered-start format, Hovland had a five-stroke advantage before play even began on Thursday, and that was enough.
“Hell of a player,” McIlroy said after the round. “He works incredibly hard. Nothing but respect for how he goes about his business. True professional. For someone that’s still so young, he’s got quite an old head on those shoulders.”
“He’s not that old. Nobody’s going to be the finished package at that age, really, apart from maybe Tiger Woods,” Tommy Fleetwood said of the 25-year-old Hovland. “He’s showing how good he truly can be, and I think he’ll keep going from strength to strength.”