AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | Viktor Hovland, the U.S. Amateur champion, is a lean, mean, birdie machine who doesn’t rattle easily.
Heading into the 2019 Masters, Hovland was widely expected to earn low-amateur honors. Most golfers, of course, know what can go wrong with such predictions. Hovland stumbled out of the gate in the opening round. He was 2-over par after 11 holes.
No matter. He birdied Nos. 13, 15 and 16 to reach 1 under. A closing bogey left him at even-par 72, a shot better than defending Masters champion Patrick Reed and pre-tournament favorite Rory McIlroy.
Six amateurs received invitations to the Masters. Here’s how they performed in the first round:
- Viktor Hovland, Norway, 72, T29
- Jovan Rebula, South Africa, 73, T44
- Takumi Kanaya, Japan, 73, T44
- Alvaro Ortiz, Mexico, 73, T44
- Devon Bling, U.S., 74, T58
- Kevin O’Connell, U.S., 77, T77
Hovland, an observant young man, is not reluctant to evaluate his own shortcomings. “I didn’t quite have my best stuff,” he said. “But I’m pleased. I certainly don’t plan to make changes to my game. I have learned that I can play pretty well even when my swing is not at its best. My misses usually are pretty good. I believe in trying to play stress-free golf.”
Hovland also said he feels good about his progress. “I think I’ve gotten a lot smarter this year,” he said.
A lot smarter and perhaps a lot more patient. That’s the analysis of Alan Bratton, his coach at Oklahoma State University. “He is very patient and willing to go slow to achieve his goals,” Bratton said.
Is Hovland changing his swing or his game for his first major? Absolutely not. “I’m not trying to change big parts of my game just to get ready for the Masters,” he asserted. “I want to keep my own identity.”
No doubt, 2018 was one of those glory years for men’s golf at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys won the NCAA Division I team title, hammering Alabama, 5-0, in the match-play final. They now own 11 men’s golf crowns. Meanwhile, Hovland’s U.S. Amateur victory earned him exemptions into the Masters and U.S. Open. He is the fifth OSU Cowboy with a U.S. Amateur title, joining a distinguished list that includes Scott Verplank, Bob Dickson, Labron Harris Jr. and Peter Uihlein.
“I love the way he competes. … he doesn’t wilt in close situations.” – Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton
It’s a rarity when a college golf program excels at both team and individual competition, a tribute to great recruiting and guidance. At Oklahoma State, Bratton is ringmaster of what has become the Gol Darned Greatest Show on Turf. This is the way it is supposed to be – student athletes growing up mentally while their athletic skills bloom.
Hovland, 21, is from Oslo, Norway. He is a junior at Oklahoma State. This Masters is his first major championship. He got here by overwhelming his opponents. In the U.S. Amateur final at Pebble Beach Golf Links, Hovland scored a 6-and-5 victory over UCLA’s Bling. In six total matches, Hovland trailed for just one hole. For his final 86 holes, he never trailed.
“I love the way he competes,” Bratton concluded. “He just looks enthusiastic. His smile, his presence – he doesn’t wilt in close situations.”
After his U.S. Amateur victory, Hovland accepted invitations to play in three PGA Tour events plus the Australian Open. He passed up additional tour invitations to the Valspar Championship and RBC Heritage because he wanted to compete in college matches alongside his mates.
At the last of his PGA Tour appearances before the Masters, in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Hovland tied for 40th with rounds of 74-70-73-70. His 72-hole total was 287, 1-under par. He was unhappy, but he didn’t show it.
“It didn’t surprise me at all that he decided to organize his schedule this way and skip some tour events,” said Bratton. “Victor has been all about the team. He is very mature in his approach to golf.”
Bratton caddied for Uihlein in both the Masters and U.S. Open. Now he is doing the same for Hovland. Before the 2019 season, Hovland sat down with Bratton and drafted a schedule that included several specific goals. A big motivator for Hovland has been his desire to focus on Big 12 Conference competition and to win college player-of-the-year honors.
“All about the team” is a mantra for Hovland. Perhaps it’s a European thing, and perhaps it explains the overwhelming success of the European Ryder Cup team in recent years.
When it comes to golf success, Hovland could be setting new standards for Norwegians. In the long history of the PGA Tour, only one Norwegian has ever earned exempt status. That would be Henrik Bjørnstad, who qualified for the tour with a 13th-place tie in the 2005 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. The LPGA’s Suzann Pettersen is the nation’s best-known golfer. Until this week. Hovland could change it all.
Bratton is convinced it was intuition that brought the two together.
Donnie Darr, now an OSU assistant, suggested that Bratton scout Kris Ventura at the 2013 European Boys Team Championship. At that event Bratton saw Hovland while scouting Ventura and others. He saw potential in the young Norwegian.
Bratton has impeccable credentials for both playing and recruiting. He was a four-time All-American at Oklahoma State. He won seven college tournaments. He was the 1994 national player of the year, and he was named to the 1995 Walker Cup team. He played the PGA Tour and Web.com Tour.
Furthermore, he played under and worked under Oklahoma State’s Mike Holder, perhaps the greatest college golf coach of all time who now serves as the university’s athletic director.
He remains torn between two choices. Pro or amateur? It’s not an easy decision, even for the U.S. Amateur champion. But he has a season and a summer to decide.
Soccer seemed to play a role in Hovland’s future, because he looked around and saw kids playing soccer, not golf. “They all wanted to play soccer,” he said. “They wanted to be football stars. I thought golf was more fun. I just loved the game right from the beginning.”
Golf 1, soccer 0.
Can Hovland win the Masters? Can any amateur win the Masters? Probably not, unless it is possible to purchase a time machine and somehow change the course of golf history.
Post-World War II, three amateurs came within one shot of the winning total at the Masters – Billy Joe Patton in 1954 (one shot out of a Ben Hogan-Sam Snead 18-hole playoff won by Snead), Ken Venturi in 1956 (one behind champion Jack Burke Jr.), and Charlie Coe in 1961 (one shot shy of winner Gary Player). Another finished two strokes back: Frank Stranahan in 1947 (two back of winner Jimmy Demaret).
No amateur has threatened the green jacket in 58 years.
It should be fun to watch Hovland. Any amateur golf fan or Oklahoma State loyalist can say, with great pride, “Hey, I saw him play in his first major championship.”
Despite being surrounded by legendary coaches, Hovland knows the decision about his career is his alone. He remains torn between two choices. Pro or amateur? It’s not an easy decision, even for the U.S. Amateur champion. But he has a season and a summer to decide. After this, the conference championship and defense of the Cowboys’ NCAA title awaits. After that, the U.S. Open. For a 21-year-old with that kind of talent, a lot can happen between now and the end of June.
Viktor Hovland of Norway smiles on the 13th green during the first round of the Masters. Photo: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images
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