If Viktor Hovland's play on the golf course makes him compelling as a professional athlete, it's everything else he does that makes him endearing as a potential golf superstar.
at Muirfield Village on Sunday amid an atmosphere he compared to a major championship. His numbers were spectacular. He was 12th from tee to green -- no surprise there, even among the best players in the world -- and a late, long birdie at the 71st hole propelled him not only to the playoff he won over Denny McCarthy but also to finish No. 3 in strokes gained putting on the week.
His game, as Phil Mickelson pointed out on Twitter on Sunday, has become increasingly well-rounded since he turned pro in summer 2019.
Hovland has always been a ball striker. Since turning pro the week after the 2019 U.S. Open, here are the top five ball-strikers in the world:
- Jon Rahm (1.63 strokes gained)
- Collin Morikawa (1.61)
- Rory McIlroy (1.58)
- Viktor Hovland (1.51)
- Corey Conners (1.48)
Pretty elite company for somebody who's not even four years into his professional career. Hovland has always won a lot, too -- eight times in 110 Official World Golf Rankings events. However, his play this season at the biggest events -- he finished T3 at the Players, T7 at the Masters, T2 at the PGA and won the Memorial, all four events among the 10 strongest fields of the year -- has gone up a level even from what it was a year or two ago.
Hovland is as ready as one ever is to win his first major championship. Some of that improvement and progression has been physical -- he's become serviceable around the greens and an even longer driver of the ball since turning pro -- but most of it is mental.
"My instructor, Joseph Mayo, has been awesome to have on the team," said Hovland on Sunday. "We started earlier this year. We've known each other for a long time.
"He's been coming out for a lot of tournaments and just from watching me play golf in agonizing pain, just watching me short-side myself a couple times around, it's like sometimes bad breaks are going to happen. But when you watch it happen too many times or too often, he suggested basically, 'Hey, I think our course management or our strategy is not very good,' and that's when he reached out to Edoardo Molinari, who does my stats, and basically they just crunched some numbers and basically saw the stats kind of tell the same story.
"So yeah, just a little bit different strategy, and particularly ... pitching wedge to 8 irons is where I'm way more conservative, especially at a golf course like this when the greens become very firm and fast and you put the pins on the edges, you just can't afford to go for them."
This is what maturity in golf looks like, and it's why Hovland, now No. 5 in the world, is one of the favorites to win the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club after three consecutive top 10s at major championships.
But if all the success and the numbers and the eight wins and the three straight top 10s at majors and the Memorial victory and the ball-striking is what draws you in, it's everything else Hovland does that keeps you around. While this may seem hyperbolic, but it's not, he is perhaps the most likable professional athlete in the world.
It's mostly always been this way. When asked about whether he and his fellow 2019 rookies Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff should be the favorites at the John Deere Classic, Hovland gave an answer for the ages.
Hovland's delight for life seems to ooze at every turn, but it often is most obvious for whatever reason at the end of tournaments when he's receiving big checks. There he was on Sunday busting Jack Nicklaus' chops. Jack Nicklaus! Not just at the trophy ceremony, but in a post-round press conference as well.
So there's that, but there's also this: Hovland caddied for his old teammate and the No. 1,859 player in the world, Zach Bauchou, on Monday morning at a U.S. Open sectional qualifier. The qualifier is slated for 36 holes, and there's the No. 5 player in the world, who took home over $3 million on Sunday evening in a grueling golf tournament, looping for his buddy.
If there's a pro athlete who's easier to root for than Hovland, I don't know of him or her. That person certainly does not exist in golf. He has completed perhaps the most difficult trick in the book, which is becoming player with all the gifts who can conjure the killer instinct all the greats must muster with a boyish charm even the most casual fan can get behind. Most players fall on one end or vacillate between the two.
Hovland, for reasons unknown, can balance both. As a result, he could be on his way to becoming one of the most lovable, successful superstars in golf in a very long time.