Viktor Hovland’s never-ending pursuit of improvement still persists while on top of golf world
Viktor Hovland is known for many things. He’s a lover of heavy metal, podcasts and Chipotle. He’s a professional golfer who can’t bring himself to watch other sports. He’s a jovial 26-year-old who dismantles the world’s toughest courses, donning eccentric outfits and a yawning smile.
‘Optimizer’ is a descriptor that’s used less often, but it one that aptly describes the reasons for his overwhelming success. The bashful Norwegian is already a star and in the midst of an ascension to even greater heights. His trajectory feels immune to roadblocks because he’s blown through any that previously stood in his path.
He went from famously saying, “I just suck at chipping,” following his maiden TOUR win at the 2020 Puerto Rico Open to sinking a chip from on the green at the first hole of the 2023 Ryder Cup. He morphed from a pudgy teen into a lean and powerful pro who possesses a combination of distance and accuracy that is exceedingly rare. While Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff won before Hovland after the trio turned pro in 2019, Hovland has taken the path of incremental growth.
It culminated with a career year in 2023. He finished third at THE PLAYERS Championship. He was seventh at the Masters after starting the final round in the second-to-last group. He was runner-up at the PGA Championship, challenging Brooks Koepka until a double-bogey at the 16th hole. Then Hovland won the Memorial presented by Workday and the final two Playoffs events – the BMW Championship and the TOUR Championship – to claim the FedExCup and double his career wins total in less than three months.
Now, he enters 2024 as arguably the best player in the world. A win at this week’s The Sentry, the first event of the 2024 season, would make him just the fourth player in the past 15 years to win three consecutive PGA TOUR starts. The others? Tiger Woods (2008), Rory McIlroy (2014) and Dustin Johnson (2017).
So, what’s left to optimize?
“Everything,” Hovland said.
He delivered that succinct answer after the final round of the Hero World Challenge in December. As Hovland walked off the 18th green of Albany Golf Club and up the steps toward the scoring tent, he was exasperated; his shoulders shrugged with a gaze that never left the ground. He would finish 10th in a field of 20 players, not a result to write home about, though his Sunday performance seemed worthy of a more favorable post-round reaction. He opened the door to the scoring area and signed for a 9-under round of 63, the tournament’s low round.
“I didn’t play very good this week,” he told PGATOUR.COM moments later.
It’s an example of the selective memory that often lingers with elite athletes — the insatiable desire to improve on every flaw, real or perceived. An NFL quarterback will complete 19 of 20 passes but rue the one mistake. A starting pitcher will throw seven innings and get a win, but the solo home run he gave up in the third inning will still linger with him.
Hovland is no different. His caddie Shay Knight called him a “perfectionist” after his TOUR Championship victory. And in this final round at Albany Golf Club, Hovland made six birdies and two eagles. He was 10 under through 15 holes and darn near perfect. He finished bogey-par-par. It could have been better.
“I missed it on the wrong side a lot and putted awful,” he said.
It was reminiscent of his feelings in the Bahamas just a year prior following an even better result. In December 2022, he won the Hero World Challenge for the second consecutive year but left the island with a similar tinge of dissatisfaction. There was something wrong with his swing that he couldn’t nail down. It was shortly thereafter that Hovland reached out to instructor Joe Mayo. Mayo quickly diagnosed the issue. Hovland’s chest wasn’t moving fast enough through impact. Addressing the issue tightened Hovland’s dispersion and started a professional relationship between Hovland and Mayo that proved fruitful for the rest of the year.
In February, the duo tackled Hovland’s chipping, which had long been the glaring weakness of his game. In his first four seasons on the PGA TOUR, he didn’t finish higher than 124th in Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green. In 2022, he ranked 191st out of 193 qualified players. The best players can’t have that big of a hole in their game. Hovland knew it. So when Mayo came to him with a possible — but radical — solution, Hovland was all ears. Mayo convinced Hovland to hit down on the ball more steeply, going against the teaching wisdom of the day.
“His chipping is about as weird as it gets, hitting down on it that much,” said Sepp Straka, a Ryder Cup teammate of Hovland’s. “I don’t understand half the things he works on.”
That has never bothered Hovland. He searched the depths of the golf world to craft the game he has today. His swing has been influenced by copious YouTube tutorials, a few coaches and countless imperceivable edges he picked up along the way. The chipping issues had been the hardest hurdle to clear. But Hovland has been above-average around the greens since he changed his form. In 2023, he gained strokes around the green for the first time in his career.
Whether his chipping can become an asset rather than just a passable part of his game will go a long way in determining if there is yet another jump for Hovland in 2024. He sees room for improvement in his putting, too.
That emphasis came from Edoardo Molinari, the DP World Tour player who moonlights as a data analyst to Hovland and several of the world’s top players. Looking through his statistics, Molinari found Hovland’s lag putting worsened in 2023. The PGA TOUR stats paint a similar picture. Hovland was an above-average putter overall but ranked 174th from 20-25 feet and 126th from outside 25 feet. That contributed to a middling three-putt avoidance percentage and too many squandered opportunities.
Molinari also found Hovland struggled on putts with a particular break, though he declined to delve into specifics.
“If he can have a few more good putting weeks he could be unreal,” Molinari said.
That bore out last season. In three tournaments, Hovland gained more than one stroke per round on the greens. He won all three.
As Hovland stood outside the Albany Golf Club locker room, he wouldn’t commit to any goals. He didn’t proclaim this would be the year he won his first major or reached No. 1 in the world. He explained that you can’t pick and choose the tournaments you win.
Sometimes the putts fall, and sometimes they don’t. You just need to take the breaks when they come. Sometimes that means winning the FedExCup. Other times it could be the Puerto Rico Open or the Memorial Tournament presented by Workday or the Masters or the Ryder Cup. Deep down, though, he knows there’s more to it than that. It’s why he works so hard.
The only goal he would utter out loud was the one he’s never stopped working towards: finding constant improvement.
And that wasn’t exclusive to golf. Hovland is obsessed with growth in every aspect of his life. He’s an avid podcast listener, not of sports, pop culture or news topics. He seeks out podcasts that make him think. His favorites are Joe Rogan, the Huberman Lab and the Theory of Everything podcast.
“It’s interesting to listen to physics and every single angle you can look at things from,” Hovland said.
Some of the podcasts pertain to golf, too. He’s taken tips from “biohackers” on how to recover better, sleep better and supplement better. “I try to learn as much as I can,” Hovland said.
The only concern is whether that could reach a breaking point. Is there a time when there’s not much left to optimize? Or, put another way, could Hovland’s ravenous desire for improvement have the potential to do more harm than good? Matt Fitzpatrick pondered that question.
“He always wants to improve,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s the sign of the best players. They don’t just hang it up and stop practicing … It’s finding the balance of trying to improve and get better but also not change too much to make it worse. We’ve seen a lot of world No. 1’s get to the top and not hold it.”
Molinari called striking that balance “extremely difficult for everyone,” especially for a player of Hovland’s caliber who has “small room for improvement” and a “huge” risk of taking a step back.
“He is not satisfied with simply being ‘good’ at something,” Molinari said.
Hovland insists he won’t work just to work. He may like to try many things, but only a few will stick. And, “If there’s not much to fix, there’s not much to tinker with,” he said.
That Hovland doesn’t feel close to his best yet presents an unnerving reality for the rest of the PGA TOUR. Because even if Hovland isn’t ready to make grand proclamations about his game, others are.
“He’s someone I imagine will be No. 1 in the world,” Max Homa said. “He’s got all the capabilities to do so. He’s shown it in the majors. He’s someone that could rattle off multiple majors if he picks off his first one.”
This year could be the year.