PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – As Viktor Hovland went through each of his media stops Friday at The Players, he made clear his frustration.
“Pretty disappointed I didn’t finish it off today, because I played some really, really good golf,” said Hovland, who had surged into a share of the lead but played his last five holes in 4 over par to sit barely inside the top 10 at the halfway point.
“Yeah, it’s frustrating with that finish.”
But these days, at least, it’s easier for him to shrug it off. It’s been that way ever since he hooked up earlier this year with a new swing coach, Joe Mayo, better known in golf circles as the “TrackMan Maestro.” Mayo’s mastery of the modern approach has meshed perfectly with Hovland’s insatiable desire for knowledge, their partnership a significant reason why the 25-year-old Norwegian feels ready to take his game to the next level.
“I noticed that I’m way less stressed on the golf course,” he said Friday afternoon. “I know I kinda s--t the bed today, but it’s easier to overcome it when you believe that you’re going to play well the next day or the next hole or the next shot.”
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Hovland reached out to Mayo after the Tournament of Champions in early January. Hovland was coming off a victory in his most recent start, at the Hero World Challenge, but it came at the tail end of a year that was defined mostly by his near-misses, none more crushing than at the Open Championship, where he shared the 54-hole lead with Rory McIlroy but slid to a tie for fourth after a listless Sunday performance. Somehow, Hovland was contending even while fighting a two-way miss.
At his best, Hovland likes to play a “squeeze cut” that starts down the left side and falls back to the right. It’s powerful, it’s familiar, it’s reliable. But throughout the year, his shots were starting out of a left window and then drawing, filling one of the game’s purest ball-strikers with angst.
“That’s a very tough feel to play with,” he said.
One of Mayo’s first moves was to send Hovland to Dallas to meet up with Jon Sinclair, one of the country’s foremost experts in capturing and analyzing 3D data. Almost immediately, they spotted a clear difference in how his pelvis and sternum were moving throughout the swing, which was creating the dreaded two-way miss.
We’ll let Hovland explain: “To make it very simplified, my sternum had gotten too far ahead, and my pelvis had been moving too far back. My sternum was almost past my pelvis in the swing – and it should be the opposite way. Watch a young Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus, and it’s that reverse-C finish. I was almost doing the opposite, and it’s hard to hit cuts doing that.
“It was actually a very simple thing for me to change, and now I see the same ball flight.”
Each tournament since, Hovland has progressed with his iron play: from 47th at Pebble Beach, to 31st at Phoenix, to 18th at Riviera, to 13th last week at Bay Hill. Now, at The Players Championship, he ranks No. 4 in the field in strokes gained: approach.
“The last few weeks, we haven’t even been working on too much – just beating in the same things that we’ve been working on and seeing improvement all the time,” Hovland said. “I really enjoy Joe’s math and physics perspective on things. I know what I feel, and I know how it feels when I hit a good shot, but I like to understand what is actually happening so in the future I can help myself.”
With Hovland’s full swing in control, they’ve turned their collective attention to the area that has befuddled and plagued him ever since he broke out on Tour: his short game. It’s rare that one of the top players in the world has such a glaring deficiency, but Hovland is literally one of the worst on Tour around the greens. This season he ranks 169th – and that’s actually an improvement over a season ago, when he was 191st out of 193 players in that statistic.
It hasn’t been for a lack of effort, of course.
Hovland has cycled through coaches, desperate for a solution to his chipping and pitching woes. He has been told by countless instructors that the root of his problem was a bowed left wrist. But that explanation didn’t satisfy him – how, he asked, could Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka all overcome a bowed left wrist to become world No. 1, but he was somehow doomed?
Back in Dallas, the 3D imaging showed that his right shoulder was too low and his pelvis – once again – was moving back and away from the target. From that position he had little choice but to bottom out behind the ball, leading to inconsistent contact. The solution, Mayo told him, was to tilt his shoulders more level and feel like his pelvis was moving forward.
“That’s been a game-changer,” he said. “I can go out to the chipping green, and I can put it on a tight lie and clip it perfectly every single time. Now, it’s just about pushing the limits, seeing what I can do on real short-sided shots.”
Statistics show that Hovland still has plenty of work to do. He has lost strokes around the green to the field in each start this year, but he insists he is seeing improvement. Last week at Bay Hill, he said he was undone by eight plugged lies in the bunker. He still played in the final group Sunday, but shot a final-round 75 en route to a T-10 finish.
The short-game numbers aren’t pretty this week at TPC Sawgrass, either. He has successfully scrambled just seven times in 12 chances, his momentum slowed Friday when he couldn’t get up-and-down on Nos. 4 and 5 (his 13th and 14th of the day) with a chance to limit the damage. Those were the miscues that gnawed at him afterward ... and yet, with a bit more time to reflect, he was able to see the bigger picture. To see how much he’d progressed.
A few months ago, this place would have tortured him. Now, he feels – he knows – that each facet of his game is sharp enough to win.
“This is the perfect example,” he said. “First off, you can’t have a two-way miss. Imagine standing on No. 18 and not knowing whether it’s going to go to left or right. There’s no point in being there. But now I can aim it left over the water, cut it off of it, and know that I’m not going to miss left.
“And No. 2, you’re going to have some really short-sided shots. The greens are really firm, and you’re going to have to get spin on the ball. That means you have to get close to it with good spin loft. And that’s been fun to see that I can pull it off.”
No, Hovland may never turn into Spieth around the greens, and that’s OK. For now, at least, he is content to be competent and confident.
“This doesn’t mean I’m going to hit a great shot all the time,” Hovland said, “but believing it is half the battle – and I believe it now.”