Champion Hovland Displays Talent, Levity
August 19, 2018 | Pebble Beach, Calif.
By Dave Shedloski
The irreverent nature of the newly crowned U.S. Amateur champion, Viktor Hovland, readily poured out on Sunday afternoon at Pebble Beach Golf Links after he defeated Devon Bling, 6 and 5, such as when he was asked about adding his name to the Havemeyer Trophy along with the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
“Tiger who?” he said with a laugh.
And later, when it was pointed out that he bears a striking resemblance to 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, Hovland replied, “I’m a little better-looking.”
It’s obvious that laughing and smiling come easily to the 20-year-old from Oslo, Norway, but the kid has serious game, and he proved that in steamrolling through six matches in just 104 holes, tying Danny Lee in 2008 at Pinehurst No. 2 for the fewest needed to win the championship since it adopted its current format in 1979.
Who knows if big things await the Oklahoma State All-American, who has designs on a professional career but understands how difficult the game can be.
“If I can follow Tiger and those other players for even just a few footsteps, that would be really special,” he said after just his second amateur victory outside his home country.
He’s right about that, given Woods’ record, which includes nine USGA titles, but the truth is that Hovland already is blazing a trail of his own. He is the first player from Norway to win the U.S. Amateur, which gives him a berth in next year’s U.S. Open back here at Pebble Beach. He also will be invited to the 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush and the Masters, making him the first player from his country to tee it up at Augusta National Golf Club.
Suzann Pettersen, with 15 LPGA victories, is the most successful golfer from Norway, but she recognized what Hovland was poised to accomplish Sunday.
As she wrote on Twitter after his victory on Sunday:
Hovland’s achievement likely eclipsed that of Henrik Bjornstad, the most notable male golfer from Norway who played two years on the PGA Tour without much success. Hovland actually got to know the former Eisenhower Trophy competitor when Bjornstad helped the Norwegian developmental team, and Bjornstad also practices regularly at Miklagard, the club in Norway where Hovland is a member.
But no one player back home has been a strong mentor or inspiration. His father Harald introduced Hovland to the game when he was 4 years old, and it has been up to him to find his way.
“It's not so much having one guy that you kind of look up to. It's more of having a lot of other kids around you,” said Hovland. “When I was 11, I made the decision to go into a club near my home, and they had a lot of junior players. So the culture and the environment was really good for us to improve. But then it all kind of dwindled away.
“So that's the hardest part, is that it doesn't really do you that much good if there's just one guy doing well on the PGA or European Tour,” he added. “You've got to have guys around you that you can practice with and compete against so that you can get better and have more fun practicing and playing, which I didn't really have much of. If you go to Sweden and look, there's juniors all over the place at different clubs. It's just so much easier for them to pop up because they feed off each other.”
One moment at age 11 was crucial to his development. That’s when he told his father that he wanted to begin practicing indoors in the winter, when snow is on the ground in Norway for four or five months. “Before that I kind of just took a hiatus from the game during that stretch,” he said.
Asked what this victory meant for his home country, Hovland replied: “I don’t really know the implications or the consequences this victory will mean for Norway. I hope it does something good.”
Prior to the final he downplayed any potential effect his success might have at home. “I'm just trying to do the best I can. It would be sweet to kind of be the front man for Norway, but I'm just … I'm still an amateur playing amateur golf.”
In other words, he has time to grow into a better player, a trailblazer of sorts. He’s on his way.
A self-described perfectionist, Hovland had felt befuddled by his inability to win, especially when he had come close a number of times the past spring at Oklahoma State. Ranked No. 5 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, he came to the U.S. Amateur fresh off a runner-up finish in the European Amateur, which seemed to add to his frustration. Now he owns the biggest victory in amateur golf. He now knows what it takes to win.
“This is a good thing behind me, knowing I am capable of something like this,” he said.
And maybe some fellow countrymen will start to feel they’re capable of this, too.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.