HARTFORD, Conn. – Travelers Championship officials had to be ecstatic about Viktor Hovland notching his first PGA Tour win Sunday in the Puerto Rico Open.
Hovland was one of the four top-ranked amateurs in the world to receive a sponsors’ exemption to the Connecticut’s biggest sporting event last year, and he’s now the third to capture a PGA Tour title in eight months.
First, it was Oklahoma State teammate Matthew Wolfe winning the 3M Open two weeks after he made his pro debut in the Travelers Championship and then Collin Morikawa prevailed in the Barracuda Championship a month after he played at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell.
Hovland joined the list of 20somethings to fulfill expectations and reach the peak of the world’s best tour when he made a 25-foot birdie putt on the final hole to edge Josh Teater, a 40-year-old journeyman in his 196th PGA Tour start, 179 more than the Norwegian winner. Hovland’s decisive stroke came after a 30-foot chip-in for eagle 3 at the 15th hole that followed two flubbed chips on the way to a triple-bogey 6 at No. 11.
“It is incredible,” Hovland after his decisive stroke at Grand Reserve in Coco Beach in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. “I don’t even know. I couldn’t quite believe it. I was just thinking about all the other putts that I’ve putted throughout the round and I’ve pretty much left every single putt short. So I was like, ‘Okay, I’m not going to hit this putt short.’ I had a good line on it and I just whacked it. Thankfully, when it was five, six feet out, I knew it was looking pretty good.”
The ball hit the back of the hole with pace and disappeared for a closing 2-under-par 70 and 72-hole total of 20-under 268, and all the expectations had been delivered and the PGA Tour had its first champion from Norway after he was the first ranked No. 1 as an amateur. He joined Morikawa, 2017 Travelers Championship winner Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama as the last players to win at only 22 years old.
“It’s hard to deal with the expectations because they’re usually a lot higher than kind of what are realistic,” said Hovland, the U.S. Amateur champion and a member of a victorious NCAA national championship team at Oklahoma State in 2018 and low amateur in the Masters and U.S. Open in 2019. “If you would ask me a year ago if I would have won a PGA Tour event in my 17th start as a 22‑year‑old, I mean, that would be nuts.
“As you start thinking about expectations and the noise that’s outside the course, that’s when you start to put more pressure on yourself and you can easily kind of forget who you are. Obviously, triple bogey is not what you’re looking for, but I’d done a really good job this week of not getting super mad. The last few weeks I’ve kind of been struggling with my game a little bit and I let small mistakes really get to me a lot more and this week I’ve been really ice cold.
“Even after that triple-bogey I thought, ‘Well, crap, that’s not ideal,’ but I knew that if I just played well on the back nine … if I make two or three birdies coming in, I can be right in it. When I passed 14 tee and saw the leaderboard and we were tied, I wasn’t thinking about that triple bogey at all.”
Hovland chipped in for birdie at the 10th for a three-stroke lead and offered one of familiar trademark smiles. He lost all of the lead with what he called “a train wreck” 6 at No. 11, where he made birdie the first three rounds, to fall into a tie with third-round leader Kyle Stanley and Teater, who moved in front with a birdie at the 15th hole. Hovland’s second shot on the par-5 came up short and right of the green in the rough, but he chipped in to reclaim the lead.
“To be honest, I missed my spot by a few feet,” said Hovland, a native of Oslo, Norway. “But it took a big jump forward, and I got lucky.”
Teater got even again with a birdie at the 17th hole and came up just short on a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-5 18th. Knowing a birdie would give him that elusive first PGA Tour title, Hovland finished with the flourish with the 25-footer for the win.
Hovland made his first of 12 PGA Tour starts as a pro in last year’s Travelers Championship on his first of his sponsors’ exemptions, shooting a 1-under 279 to tie for 54th, his first of five straight cuts made. He also finished inside the Top 16 four times, including fourth in the Wyndham Championship, and shot in the 60s in his last 13 rounds of the season.
After narrowly missing his PGA Tour card via non-member points, he headed to the Korn Ferry Tour Finals and tied for 11th and second to secure his place on the PGA Tour. Then, as a rookie, he extended his consecutive rounds in the 60s to a record 19 while opening this season shooting 12-under 268 to tie for 10th in the A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier.
But as a victory remained elusive, Hovland and his caddie Shay Knight became cognizant of the expectations of others creeping into Viktor’s attitude. With results fading a bit lately, every missed putt was affecting his mindset a little more than it should. But the pair had highlighted the issue and were focused on addressing it.
“There are so many expectations on him, which is tough, but we knew when he was just playing on exemptions, he was just out there having fun and you could see that and feel that and he was playing great,” Knight said. “And then he got his card and I think started to try and fill those expectations right away and he was getting very stressed and he wasn’t himself.
“So we had a chat about it a couple of weeks ago, and I said, ‘It’s a long year and it is going to be a rollercoaster, so you just need to stay positive.’ That’s exactly what he did this week. His attitude was unbelievable, and I think that was the real difference maker.”
Now, of course, expectations will rise again for Hovland, who became exempt for The Players Championship and PGA Championship, and his world ranking of 60th puts him in the Top 60 that qualify for the World Golf Championships-Dell Technology Match Play if he can maintain that status.
“He’s an unbelievable talent who does have a good attitude as a whole, and while sometimes he loses focus on that, this week just shows him what a positive attitude can do,” Knight said. “It shows him, as he goes down the road, exactly what he needs to do to win golf tournaments. Champions are the ones that put mistakes behind them and come out the other side. He did that today, and that is why he is holding the trophy.”
After receiving the sponsors’ exemptions from Travelers last year, Hovland, Wolff and Morikawa are likely to return to TPC River Highlands on June 25-28. That would certainly add more luster to a field that already includes early commitments from No. 1-ranked Rory McIlroy, No. 4 Justin Thomas, No. 7 Patrick Cantlay and Bubba Watson, who will try to tie Hall of Famer Billy Casper for most tournament wins (four). Chez Reavie will defend his title after ending an 11-year victory drought last year.