Viktor Hovland: A Chip off the Old Block

Showing off a savvy new short game in front of one Tiger Woods, Viktor Hovland grabbed a share of the first-round lead at the Masters

By Alan Shipnuck
April 6, 2023

AUGUSTA, Ga.—Imagine a recovering alcoholic on spring break in Cancun, a reformed pyromaniac on Fourth of July, a dieting John Daly during all-you-can-eat wings night at Hooters….this is basically Viktor Hovland at Augusta National. Hovland, 25, turned himself into a world-class player despite a wedge game that alternated between scoopy, yippy and diggy. Now, after months of diligent work during which he stopped using the leading edge of his wedges around the greens and learned to embrace the bounce, he has been reborn as a credible chipper and pitcher. But at Augusta National, with its tight, grainy lies and terrifying greens, every errant approach invites a relapse while each cavernous bunker can send Hovland tumbling off the wagon. There’s a reason why he has never finished better than 21st in three previous trips to the Masters.

Robin Golf Fire Pit

Hovland finally cracked the code at the Masters on Thursday, playing the front nine in 31. Two mighty clouts set up an eagle on the par-5 2nd hole, but that’s not news; Hovland has long been celebrated for his macho ballstriking, and a laser on the par-3 6th led to another birdie. The first test for Hovland’s reconstituted game came on the par-5 8th hole, when he was pin-high but left of the green in two. He played a lovely, long pitch on which he expertly kept the ball below the hole and then brushed in the ensuing 8-footer. “I’ve just kind of continued to gain confidence around the greens,” Hovland said afterward. “Got some weapons around the green here now. Short-sided is no problem. And I got some tools where I can kind of bounce it into the slope and it still checks. Before, out here, I could bounce it into the slope but it would have no spin. So that’s a big game-changer now.”

Of course, it’s easy to say that in a pre-tournament press conference, as Hovland had, and another thing entirely to face a terrifying chip as the Masters leader with the world watching, as he did on the 10th hole. Hovland had short-sided himself after fanning his approach right of the bunker and faced a downhill, sidehill pitch over a gaping bunker to a tucked flag. It had bogey or worse written all over it. To pull off such a shot takes touch, imagination, nerve, technical skill and derring do. Oh, by the way, looking on wanly was Tiger Woods, the first time Hovland had ever been paired with the five-time Masters champ (though he has won Woods’s tournament, the World Challenge, two years running and as the low amateur at the 2019 Masters was in Butler Cabin after Tiger’s historic win). Upon hearing the news of his pairing for the first two rounds, Hovland said, “My heart kind of went a little bit further up in the throat, and I just thought, wow, this is going to be exciting. Heart rate started going up. You’ve just got to embrace it. If you want to win this tournament, you can’t be scared about playing with Tiger. So you’ve just got to overcome things like that.” With that same fearlessness, he feathered his pitch on 10 to four feet and then rammed in the par putt. “For him to nip it the way he did was spectacular,” said his caddie, Shay Knight

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How good is a shot like that for a looper’s mental health?

“It’s not for my well-being,” Knight said. “It’s for his.”

Hovland overpowered the 13th hole for a two-putt birdie to reach 7 under and momentarily take a three-shot. He parred the next four holes, but on 18 he went bunker-to-bunker. He was short-sided again, and to get anywhere near a front pin he would have to delicately feed his ball off the slope in the middle of the green, a touch shot that would have been unthinkable in the past. “The bunker’s not an auto bogey [anymore],” Hovland said of his newfound shot. “I feel like I can spin it in the bunkers even though the sand is a little bit fluffy.” He hit a beauty to walk off with another triumphant par and a round of 65.

By day’s end, Hovland had been caught atop the leaderboard by Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm. Koepka is such a contrarian he might win this Masters just to spite all the haters, real or imagined. Rahm four-putted the 1st hole and then, powered by a controlled rage, played the next 17 holes in 9 under. The rest of the leaderboard is stacked with big-time players: Cameron Young and Jason Day are at 5 under, while Shane Lowry, Xander Schauffele, Adam Scott and defending champion Scottie Scheffler are one shot farther afield. This is not yet Hovland’s tournament to lose—there is way too much golf left for that. But Thursday’s 65 represented its own kind of victory, one that foreshadows big things for a mega-talent who keeps adding to his arsenal.

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