ATLANTA – When Viktor Hovland won the Hero World Challenge in December, it put a bow on a year that was defined by close calls but otherwise was short on victory. For some, it would have represented a time to kick back, enjoy the holidays and assume his end-of-the-season winning form would be a springboard to bigger things, but not Hovland. He sought to get better and that meant it was time to re-make himself into a more complete player.
“If you want to get to the next level, you have to look introspectively,” he said. “I think when you try to be honest with yourself and ask yourself, OK, how can I get better, I just basically have to force myself to change a couple of these mindset things.”
All the hard work – to his swing, short game, use of Aim Point and course strategy – paid off, culminating in back-to-back wins and a prize of $18 million as the FedEx Cup champion. On another hot, humid day that led to a nearly two-hour weather delay, Hovland carded a 7-under 63 at East Lake Golf Club and rolled to a five-stroke victory over Xander Schauffele in the 30-man Tour Championship, the 47th event of the 2022-23 season and third and final leg of the FedEx Cup Playoffs.
“He just keeps his foot on the pedal,” three-time FedEx Cup champion Rory McIlroy said, “just isn’t scared.”
No fear and a refusal to be complacent are attributes that have made the 25-year-old Norwegian one of the best players in the game. Despite winning the U.S. Amateur in 2018 and finding immediate success on the PGA Tour as one of the best ballstrikers in golf, Hovland grew frustrated with his consistency last season.
“It’s a little frustrating showing up to events when you don’t feel like you have your best stuff,” he said before winning in the Bahamas in December. “You don’t have the confidence over the ball thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to stuff this 7-iron,’ because that’s what I used to do when I first came out here and the last two years basically it’s been pretty deadly from the fairway.”
Hovland’s frustration boiled over and in his search to identify flaws in his game that could help him challenge for world No. 1, he changed swing coaches in January, hiring Joe Mayo, better known in social media circles as the Trackman Maestro.
“It is amazing that a player could win a tournament and not be happy with themselves,” Mayo said of Hovland switching coaches shortly after a win, but Mayo’s seen pros who have attributed a win to “smoke and mirrors.”
TITLE-WINNING GEAR: Viktor Hovland’s winning golf equipment at the 2023 Tour Championship
Switching coaches can be a risky proposition for a player. It can be a recipe for disaster but Mayo noted that Hovland is too savvy to let that happen.
“He’s not gonna let any instructor screw him up,” Mayo said. “He’s too smart for it. He’s got a great bullshit meter, as I would say.”
Mayo studied 3-D imaging of Hovland’s swing and helped him reestablish a repeatable swing and restore faith in his squeeze cut. Hovland said he’s had his best driving season. East Lake is too difficult to play from its wiry rough but Hovland, who ranked first in driving accuracy for the second straight week, could be aggressive and go flag-hunting.
“His ballstriking is probably top 3 on Tour, especially when he’s playing well,” said Edoardo Molinari, a winner of three DP Tour titles, who doubles as Hovland’s performance coach. “He doesn’t miss a shot.”
His short-game was another story. Early in his career, Hovland admitted his chipping game “sucked.” He ranked 191st in Strokes Gained: Around the Green last season.
“Before, when I was standing over every shot, I was like, ‘Don’t duff it, skull it, don’t leave it in the bunker,” Hovland said last week. “Me and a buddy of mine, we made up this saying: Just land it on and keep it on. We set the bar pretty low when we had a chip. Now it’s a lot of fun to be able to open up that face and just slap the ground and put some friction on the ball.”
At the Tour Championship, Hovland ranked first in scrambling.Mayo said he didn’t even discuss the short game with Hovland during their first month together. On Tuesday of the Genesis Invitational in February, Mayo told his pupil, “Anybody that can put a 4-iron on the back of the ball at 105 miles an hour and hit it 240, are you telling me that you can’t chip a golf ball? I don’t accept that, and I don’t buy it.”
Mayo introduced the short-game package in tiny morsels throught the Players Championship in March. Hovland has improved to 105th in SG: Around the Green this season.
Mayo points out that that figure doesn’t take into account when they started working together. Mayo asked Molinari to run his short game stats from the Players through the FedEx St. Jude Championship and the numbers don’t lie: He’s gained .176 shots, “which puts him at about 55th,” Mayo said.
“That’s been the difference from being still a top-10 player in the world to what he’s done this year,” McIlroy said.
The final ingredient in turning Hovland into his best self this season was improving his course management. He began working with Molinari last year but it was this spring where they made one of their biggest discoveries. After the Masters, where Hovland finished T-7, Mayo asked Molinari to crunch some numbers and discovered that when Hovland attacked greens with pitching wedge through 8-iron, he was short-siding himself 30 percent of the time and the Tour average is 20 percent of the time.
“Sometimes he just misses in spots where no one would get up and down,” Molinari said. “The short game is less of an issue than it is believed to be.”
Hovland compared his new-found focus on course management to the game of poker and placing smart bets depending on the hand he’s dealt. He implemented the strategy at the PGA Championship and finished T-2, and it worked to perfection at the Memorial in June, the first of his three wins in his last eight events.
“Anytime you can tilt math to your advantage, that can be huge,” he said.
Mayo has beaten into Hovland’s head that in Tiger Woods’s heyday, he made a living off of hitting safely to 20 feet, shooting 70 and winning a bundle of majors.
“It’s called boring golf and if Viktor Hovland plays boring golf, he’s going to be hard to beat,” Mayo said.
A week ago, at the BMW Championship near Chicago, Hovland said he “blacked out for a minute” en route to a final-round 61, which included seven birdies and a back-nine 28 to clip world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and Matt Fitzpatrick.
At East Lake, where he won the 2018 East Lake Cup men’s stroke play title, which included his first hole-in-one at the par-3 11th, Hovland began the week in second place with a stroke allocation of 8 under in the staggered start. With rounds of 68-64-66, he built a commanding six-stroke lead and he continued his assault on par with four birdies in his first six holes. Schauffele (62) did his best to chip away at the lead, making birdie at seven of his first 12 holes to trim the deficit to three.
“I’ll hold my head up high,” Schauffele said. “It was the most fun I had losing in quite some time.”
Just when it looked like it was about to become a taut affair, Hovland canned a clutch 23-foot par putt at No. 13, the longest putt he made all week, and tacked on birdies at 16 and 17 for good measure to wrap up a bogey-free final round and a total score of 27 under that made the walk to the 18th green a foregone conclusion.
How will Hovland celebrate his massive payday?
“I don’t have anything in mind that I would buy,” he said. “To be honest, I’m just looking forward to getting some down time this fall and just will spend some more time in Norway, hang out with my friends and just kind of relax and enjoy.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tour Championship 2023: Viktor Hovland wins FedEx Cup Playoffs