HARTFORD, Conn. – Travelers Championship officials had to be smiling after one of the many collegian players whom they given sponsors’ exemptions to through the years won again.
Viktor Hovland, one of the four leading amateurs to receive an exemption and make his PGA Tour debut at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell in 2019, made a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a one-stroke victory over Aaron Wise in the Mayakoba Golf Classic, his second win in his rookie season.
Hovland has said his nerves are a mess when he gets in contention, but he certainly belied that again down the stretch at El Camaleon Golf Club in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. He made a 15-foot birdie putt at the 14th hole and a stellar par with 40-yard save from a waste area at No. 16 before sinking the clutch closing birdie for a closing 6-under-par 65 and a 72-hole total of 20-under 264. It was the first time since the tournament began in 2007 that it was won with a birdie on the final hole, but it wasn’t new for Hovland, who made a 20-foot birdie putt at No. 18 to win the Puerto Rico Open in February.
“I don’t feel really good in pressure situations, and I was shaking at the end,” said a smiling Hovland, a 23-year-old native of Oslo, Norway. “I thought I lost it after the second shot on 16, but I made an awesome par there. I knew I had to make birdie on 18, and the putt just happened to go in. I played very solid all day and great on the front nine. But on the back, I just didn’t hit it as close as I did and just didn’t make the 15-footers that I made on the front.
“The bogey on 12 kind of set me back a little bit, but I knew I was still in a good position and knew if I could pick off a few birdies coming in, I would be right there. So obviously there’s a lot of up and down in your body that you’re feeling. But my golf was very, very steady.”
Collin Morikawa, whose three PGA Tour titles include the PGA Championship on Aug. 9, and Matthew Wolfe, a teammate of Hovland at Oklahoma State where he captured the 2019 NCAA Individual Championship before turning pro, are other players to earn PGA Tour titles since receiving Travelers Championship exemptions 18 months ago.
Wise, who had a bogey-free, final-round 63, took a one-stroke lead with a 15-foot birdie putt at No. 14 but missed birdie tries from 12 feet on the final two holes to miss getting in a playoff or winning. The 2017 NCAA champion at the University of Oregon was also going for his second PGA Tour win, the first coming in the 2018 AT&T Byron Nelson.
“I played 17 aggressive off the tee, and on 18, I hit two great shots,” Wise said. “I hit every shot as good as I could hit it but just couldn’t get (the birdie putts) to drop.”
Hovland had four birdies in the first six holes and built a two-shot lead going to the back nine on a course softened by rain that caused a two-hour delay in the morning. But he made bogey on the 12th hole, and that created chances for a half-dozen players separated by one shot.
Hovland responded with birdies on the next two holes, and he appeared to be in control with a tee shot to 4 feet on the par-3 15th. But he hit a tentative putt to remain tied with Wise, and Hovland thought he was in big trouble when his long iron on the 515-yard 16th hole sailed hard to the right into a waste area a few feet from a hazard. But he hit a superb sand shot to 4 feet to save par.
Hovland, starting his second season on the PGA Tour after a stellar college career at Oklahoma State, moved to third in the FedExCup standings after his second win in only 35 career starts. He had made his first PGA Tour start in this event in 2018 playing as an amateur and now became the fifth European player since 1945 with multiple PGA Tour wins before the age of 24, joining Rory McIlroy (six), Seve Ballesteros (three), Sergio Garcia (three) and Jon Rahm (two). Hovland’s 25 birdies were high for the week, and he now has four Top-15 finishes in his last four starts: T13 in the U.S. Open, T12 in THE CJ CUP @ SHADOW CREEK, T15 in the Vivint Houston Open and first in the Mayakoba Golf Classic. He had missed the cut in his previous two tournament starts.
Wise’s 63 tied his PGA Tour low for the fourth time, including in the third round of the Mayakoba Golf Classic in 2018, when he also finished second. The 2017-18 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year now has three Top-20 finishes in seven starts this season.
Adam Long (67) and Tom Hoge (69) tied for third at 17-under 267. Hoge made a 20-foot birdie putt from the fringe on the 15th hole to get within one shot, but he three-putted from 70 feet on the tough 16th to fall back. Long lost hope when he sent his tee shot into the vegetation on the 17th hole and took bogey.
Emiliano Grillo, who led after the second and third rounds, closed with 72 and tied for eighth at 269. Justin Thomas, ranked third in the Official World Golf Rankings, got into contention with a 62 on Saturday but followed with a 69, making double bogey on No. 10 to end his chances en route to 69 for 270 and a tie for 12th. Amateur Austin Eckroat of Oklahoma State shot 67-65 on the weekend and also shared 12th.
This was the final official PGA Tour event of a season marred by a three-month delay starting on March 13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the last chance for players to qualify for the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua in January or lock up a spot in the Masters in April. Neither was an issue for Hovland, who qualified for Maui with his win in Puerto Rico and was set for Augusta National by reaching the Tour Championship.
Travelers Championship and Masters winner Dustin Johnson, ranked No. 1 in the world and PGA Tour Player of the Year, ends the year first in the FedExCup points race with 950, followed by U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau (698), Hovland (682), two-time Greater Hartford Open winner Stewart Cink (671) and Patrick Cantlay (660). Cink and Cantlay are others who have received sponsors exemptions to what is now the Travelers Championship.