PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Back in 2013, Oklahoma State head coach Alan Bratton took a recruiting trip to the European Boys’ Team Championship at Murcar Links in Scotland. His main target was a Norwegian teen named Kristoffer Ventura, who ended up signing and playing four years for the Cowboys.
But there was another Norwegian kid who caught his eye on that trip.
“A little, dark-haired guy,” Bratton said. “I really liked the way he struck his irons, and what I liked even more was his competitiveness. He was in a big, big match there and it went to a playoff, and I just got to see him hit some really clutch shots.
“… That was a big deal for a young guy to rise to the occasion on that stage.”
That young guy was Viktor Hovland. And five years later, on a cool Sunday at iconic Pebble Beach, Bratton got a front-row seat to the now-20-year-old Oklahoma State junior starring on a much grander stage.
Hovland, the world’s fifth-ranked amateur yet frustrated by his inability to win golf tournaments outside of Norway, rolled through the match-play portion of the 118th U.S. Amateur, his victorious week culminating with a 6-and-5 victory over UCLA sophomore Devon Bling in the scheduled 36-hole final.
In his trek to the title, Hovland played just 102 holes, tying the U.S. Amateur record. He ended two consecutive matches on the 12th hole, including a Round-of-16 win over fellow countryman and friend Kristoffer Reitan. His match against Bling ended one hole later, continuing a streak of lopsided finals at Pebble. (David Gossett beat Sung Yoon Kim, 9 and 8, in 1999, and Jack Nicklaus topped H. Dudley Wysong Jr., 8 and 6, in 1961.)
“I always thought I had a pretty good vocabulary, but yeah, I’m lost for words,” said Hovland, whose victory this spring at the Valspar Collegiate was his only win outside of his native country until Sunday. “I’ve only won once before, and to win the U.S. Amateur as my second win is really cool. It’s hard to top that. I just hope it’s the start of something great.”
Hovland has a lot to look forward to – spots in next year’s U.S. Open and British Open, a likely invitation to the Masters and a handful of expected PGA Tour sponsor exemptions. Pretty sweet, as Hovland would say.
He also couldn’t help but glance at the distinguished names on the Havemeyer Trophy during the ceremony on Pebble’s 13th green. The first one he saw was Billy Mayfair’s, but soon names such as Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer came into focus.
What he couldn’t see was a Norwegian player etched on the golden prize.
Norway’s golf history is shorter than Pebble’s iconic 109-yard seventh hole. Suzann Pettersen is a decorated LPGA golfer and major winner. But on the men’s side, just six Norwegian golfers are ranked inside the top 1,000 of the Official World Golf Ranking. Kristian Krogh Johannessen is the lowest at No. 481. There are only six in the top 1,000 of the World Amateur Golf Ranking, as well.
Hovland didn’t have any Norwegian golf stars to look up to when he started playing golf at 4 years old. His father picked up the game only because he drove past a driving range on the way to work back when he had a job in the U.S., and Hovland took more interest in other sports at first – soccer and taekwondo – before ultimately choosing golf at age 12.
The winters in Norway are harsh, limiting golf to about seven months out of the year. (Hovland lived about 20 minutes from an indoor practice facility, but even then he could only hit 100-yard shots from one corner of the building to the other.) And while the youth system is growing, it is still very green.
Hovland has overcome so many obstacles to get to where he is now, most recently some swing troubles that saw him struggle to find the center of the clubface and get the ball in the air for much of last year. Hovland fixed the issue by spending three days with swing coach Denny Lucas in Jupiter, Fla., during Thanksgiving break. He also developed a “big slice” with his driver earlier this summer, which forced him to use a swing drill during his first European Tour start, in Germany, and cameras caught the two-second pause at the top of his swing, making Hovland a hot topic on social media.
Now, Hovland is on a trajectory that will not only make him the first Norwegian to play at Augusta National but also possibly Norway’s first male golf hero to inspire new generations of players.
“I’m just trying to do the best I can,” Hovland said. “But it would be sweet to kind of be the front man for Norway.”
Hovland has proved himself a worthy front-runner – in more ways than one. He led for all but 19 of those 102 holes this week, and never trailed in his final 86. Against Bling, he held the advantage from the fourth hole on after delivering one of the more impressive up-and-down birdies in the championship’s history.
After missing his drive right at the 292-yard par-4 hole, Hovland found his ball sitting up in the hazard, about 40 feet down the cliff on an ice plant.
“The slope was pretty steep,” Hovland said. “I didn’t want to fall when I hit the shot. So I was just trying to just make contact and hit it up there. … That was just a hit-and-hope moment.”
Hovland knocked his ball to inside of 3 feet.
“What a shot,” said Bratton, who caddied for Hovland all week. “He’ll never forget that birdie.”
Hovland later won four consecutive holes at Nos. 8-11, including three of those with par. He didn’t have his best stuff Sunday morning, hitting just six fairways, but he managed to hold on for a 4-up lead after the first 18 holes.
In the afternoon, Hovland took the first hole, but Bling, ranked 302nd in the world, didn’t quit. The 18-year-old from Ridgecrest, Calif., had most of the crowd support, including from some of his Bruin teammates. He also was playing with a heavy heart as his mother, who died in 2013, had always wanted her son to excel in U.S. Golf Association championships.
“I had friends and family and teammates, and there were people crowded in restaurants back in Ridgecrest watching,” Bling said. “I could feel all the support.”
Bling, who played the first 18 in 5 over, matched Hovland hole for hole for much of the closing stretch. He drained a 27-footer for birdie to halve No. 4, the 22nd hole, and three holes later canned a 36-footer for par to halve No. 7. He earned the biggest roar, though, at No. 9, when he got a 50-footer for birdie to drop.
But with Bling still 4 down, all Hovland needed to do was hold steady. When Bling double bogeyed the par-4 11th, Hovland moved back to 5 up. And on the next hole, the par-3 12th, par was enough to move the match to dormie as Bling three-putted from 38 feet.
Needing to win the last six holes to force extras, Bling missed a 28-footer birdie putt at the par-4 13th to end the match.
“Momentum is a big thing, and if you don’t make putts, it’s very hard to make or get momentum,” Hovland said. “I felt a couple places I made the right putts at the right time or I hit the right shots at the right time.”
Back in Norway, it was already Monday. Hovland said he didn’t know if his parents had stayed up to watch the live stream.
“I hope they managed to see it,” Hovland said.
It was still Sunday evening, though, in Hovland’s adopted home of Stillwater, Okla., where three years ago he decided was the place he wanted to play his college golf.
At the time, Hovland wasn’t a highly-sought-after recruit and flew mostly under the radar as his friend Reitan received much of the attention. He did generate some interest from Texas Tech, TCU and Tennessee, among others, but Oklahoma State made the biggest impression.
Bratton offered no other scholarships for the Class of 2016.
“He was the only guy I wanted,” Bratton said.
Less than two weeks before signing day in fall of 2015, Hovland made his official visit to Oklahoma State with his mother. It was then that he first saw the clubhouse at Karsten Creek, lined with trophies and pictures of Cowboy greats.
“You see Charles Howell III, Pablo Martin, Peter Uihlein, Rickie (Fowler), all those guys,” Hovland said. “And you win one tournament or you finish second and you play pretty good, and then you get back there and you look at their records, and it brings you more down to earth.
“But hopefully after winning this tournament, I can kind of start building on that resume and get myself a picture on that wall.”
The chances of that are very good.
Not only did Hovland dominate the field at Pebble Beach, but he also went 3-0 in match play to lead Oklahoma State to the NCAA title last spring. He was first-team All-Big 12 as a freshman and then a first-team All-American this past season. This summer also included a runner-up finish at the European Amateur and a trip to the Round of 16 at the British Amateur.
“We’re going to have to rip some more wallpaper down,” Bratton said. “We just re-did it before NCAAs. But that’s a good thing. We love that. We’ll keep tearing that down every week.”
That knack for shining on big stages that Bratton first saw in 2013? Hovland still has it – now more than ever.
A sign of more greatness to come for the future of Norway. Gwk