PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO | Viktor Hovland is one of golf’s dynamic young players who is almost impossible not to like – an Okie from Norway with a 100-kilowatt smile and a flare for the dramatic with a club in his hand. His passion for the game has resonated well with golf fans from Europe to North America.
Hovland has particularly connected with golf followers in Mexico, where he played in his first PGA Tour event at the 2018 Mayakoba Golf Classic and where he’s won back-to-back championships at Mayakoba in 2020 and ’21.
“It’s almost like my second home,” Hovland joked this week before Borja Escalada, the CEO of RHL Properties which owns the Mayakoba resort insisted, “Oh, no, you’re Mexican.”
With the strongest field in the event’s 16-year history at this week’s World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba – including world No. 2 Scottie Scheffler, No. 9 Collin Morikawa, No. 14 Tony Finau and No. 16 Billy Horschel but absent Mexico’s best in Abraham Ancer and Carlos Ortiz, both of whom defected to LIV Golf – No. 11-ranked Hovland is the clear fan favorite as he tries to become the first player to three-peat on the PGA Tour in 11 years.
“I definitely feel welcomed when I come back here; it’s a place that means a lot to me,” Hovland said of Mayakoba and its Greg Norman-designed El Camaleón course. “It’s a special place. I loved it even before winning it two times. It was the first spot I played a PGA Tour event. To come back here as a two-time champion is very special. See if I can add another one this week.”
The 25-year-old Norwegian who lives in Oklahoma, where he went to college at Oklahoma State, has the chance to include his name with some pretty illustrious company. Winning the same tour event in three consecutive years portends golf greatness more than the U.S. Amateur title Hovland won in 2018. It doesn’t guarantee hall-of-fame stature, but it certainly has a way of identifying that caliber of talent.
Former NBA head coach Pat Riley trademarked the term “three-peat” in 1988, just before Tiger Woods turned the practice of three-peating into a relative habit in golf.
As an amateur and professional, Woods three-peated so often it became “threepetitive.” He first prominently three-peated at the Junior World Championships in 1988-90 (later four-peating in 1991 as well). Then he three-peated as the U.S. Junior Amateur champion in 1991-93 before tripling up in the U.S. Amateur in 1994-96.
Woods’ threepetition quickly extended into the pro ranks. He three-peated at the Memorial and the WGC event at Firestone in 1999-2001. He won four straight Bay Hill Invitationals from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he won the first of three straight in the WGC events at Doral and Firestone (again) and the first of four consecutive Buick Invitationals at Torrey Pines.
Woods was in his own realm as a three-peating savant. Nobody else in tour history has ever managed it more than twice – Walter Hagen (1916, ’19-20 Metropolitan Open, 1924-27 PGA Championship); Gene Sarazen (1927-30 Miami Open, 1927-29 Miami Beach Open); and Arnold Palmer (1960-62 Texas Open, 1961-63 Phoenix Open).
Young Tom Morris was the original three-peater, so dominant winning three straight British Opens in 1868-70 that they retired the Challenge Belt in his name and canceled the tournament in 1871 for lack of a trophy. When it resumed in 1872, Young Tom won it again.
Fourteen additional men have won the same event three consecutive years, bringing the total to 17 players who have three-peated on tour or in majors. Fourteen of them are in the World Golf Hall of Fame, including Ben Hogan (Asheville Land of the Sky Open 1940-42), Peter Thomson (British Open 1954-56), Billy Casper (Portland Open 1959-61), Jack Nicklaus (Disney World Golf Classic 1971-73), Johnny Miller (Tucson Open 1974-76) and Tom Watson (Byron Nelson Golf Classic 1978-80). Nick Faldo (Irish Open 1991-93) and Colin Montgomerie (Volvo PGA Championship 1998-2000) are two of the rare modern-era players to three-peat on the European circuit.
The only two players to do it on the PGA Tour since the dawn of the Tiger era are Stuart Appleby (2004-06 Mercedes Championship at Kapalua) and Steve Stricker (2009-11 John Deere Classic). Nobody has done it in the 11 years since Stricker’s trifecta at TPC Deere Run.
Hovland has a chance to join that club before a slew of tour peers get cracks at three-peats in 2023: Sam Burns (Valspar Championship); K.H. Lee (AT&T Byron Nelson); Rory McIlroy (RBC Canadian Open); and Patrick Cantlay (BMW Championship). Max Homa (Fortinet Championship) and McIlroy (CJ Cup) already defended their tour titles this fall, but the tour status of both events has yet to be determined for 2023.
Opportunities to three-peat don’t come along too often in careers of golfers not named Tiger Woods. Hovland believes the moment that presents itself in Mexico is not too big for him, especially with the confidence that Mayakoba naturally seems to bring out in his game.
Last season’s five successful title defenses was the most since 2007.
“It would be awesome,” Hovland said. “The PGA Tour’s been around for a while, and that’s not something that’s happening all the time, although it does seem like more guys are defending their titles more and more now recently.”
Hovland is trying to get back in the winner’s circle for the first time since his victory in the DP World Tour’s Dubai Desert Classic in January, which capped a three-win spree in five starts that started with consecutive fall trophies at Mayakoba and Woods’ unofficial Hero World Challenge. Despite serious deep challenges at the Players Championship and Open Championship, Hovland concedes that his 2022 has been a little erratic.
But he’s convinced that he’s rounding back into form at the right time, in a place where he’s very comfortable. In Thursday’s first round, Hovland played his second nine (the front) in 6-under to shoot 65 and put himself firmly in contention again.
“It’s been an up-and-down kind of season,” Hovland said. “Played a lot of good golf, but maybe not as consistent as I would have liked, especially in the ball-striking area. But I really do feel like coming back here and with how kind of narrow it is, it makes me kind of find the shots that I need to hit back again. So I really feel like I’ve turned a corner the last kind of couple months. I feel like my game is in a good spot, and then just coming back here I’m really seeing the shots that I need to hit well. Yeah, feeling good about this week.”
While the opportunity that presents itself would seem to be an obvious goal, Hovland isn’t one to focus on being so results-oriented. He doesn’t start each season with a list of targets on his wall such as winning majors or multiple times or reaching No. 1 in the world (he’s been as high as No. 3.)
Viktor Hovland captures Mayakoba trophies in 2020 (left) and 2021, and his first-round 65 this year erases any question mark about his ability to make it three straight.
Consistency is his primary target.
“I’m not a big goal-setter in terms of results; it’s more about process goals,” he said. “I have ideas or I have goals in the sense that I want to be able to hit certain shots or I want to chip it better, putt it better and stuff like that.
“I did a really good job the last one or two years to push the ceiling a little bit higher. I feel like I’m a way more impressive player now than I was when I first came out, but I need to now kind of almost bring it back a little bit to get back to these shots that are a little bit more predictable. It doesn’t have to be as flashy. … I’ve become a way better putter than I was the first two years, and I really feel like I’ve turned a corner around the greens as well. So I just need to get back to knowing where the ball’s going and it should be fun.”
That said, the goal this week is obvious. Opportunities to three-peat don’t come along too often in careers of golfers not named Tiger Woods. Hovland believes the moment that presents itself in Mexico is not too big for him, especially with the confidence that Mayakoba naturally seems to bring out in his game.
“I think the heightened pressure can kind of help you because it just almost hyper-focuses you to perform that week,” he said. “But if you don’t have the skills to back it up for that week, it can also go the other way to where you’re trying to force things instead of it kind of naturally happening.
“I think it all depends on where the state of your game is. I certainly don’t see it as a disadvantage this week.”
Top: Viktor Hovland celebrates with caddie Shay Knight inn 2021 after winning his second consecutive World Wide Technology Championship. Photo: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images
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