Smooth sailing for Viktor Hovland at Tour Championship

A Norwegian cruise is normally set in more exotic ports-of-call than East Atlanta. Barbados or Mykonos may have a nicer ring. But those sure don’t offer the benefits of Viktor Hovland’s four-day sail through the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club.

At about 1:30 a.m. Oslo time, home-boy Hovland finished composing one of the great take-that finishes –  a clutch 23-foot par-saving putt on No. 14, going birdie-birdie-birdie at the end – on the way to a final round 63 and one shockingly easy victory.

Hovland started the day up big, six strokes over Xander Schauffele. He spent the afternoon and a 1 hour 53 minute rain delay up big. And ended it up big, finishing 5 ahead of Schauffele.

He’ll leave town up even bigger, $18 million, to be precise, which is what PGA Tour throws at its playoff winner.

That translates to roughly $192,600,000 Norwegian Krone, which is really going to tax the currency exchange booth at the airport.

Face it, if Hovland had lost this one it would have been the biggest Viking choke since Minnesota’s Gary Anderson missed that field goal against the Falcons in the 1998 NFC Championship.

Schauffele, bless his heart, did all he could. He birdied seven of his first 12 holes, featuring nine one-putt greens. He shot 62 Sunday, his lowest of many career low rounds at East Lake. Overall, he matched Hovland for the low raw score here this week – 19 under 261.

And it mattered not one whit. The staggered FedEx scoring system, in which Hovland by virtue of his better season started this event at 8 under while Schauffele began at 3 under, was too much to overcome.

“It was the most fun I had losing in quite some time,” said Schauffele, who pocketed $6.5 million for second here. “It’s such a weird feeling. I shot 62. I lost by five. Just kudos to Havi. He played unbelievably well the last few weeks to get himself into this position and to really just put a cherry on top.”

Hovland said that going into Sunday, his game plan was “to play as boring as possible, just trying to play like Tiger back in the day when he would post the 69 or a 70 in a major championship and walk away with a victory.” When Schauffele forced him to stretch beyond that narrow plan, Hovland responded with brilliant over boring.

Sunday was purely a two-man show. Six shots separated Schauffele from third, the biggest gap by far between second and next best in the 23 Tour Championships played at East Lake. Turned out that 28 players made up the Tour Championship B Flight.

The lone Norwegian on the PGA Tour, Hovland is blazing new trails for his corner of Scandinavia.

Here to cover the event for Discovery Norway, Carsten Sjelbreid said he and his countrymen first noticed Hovland putting their nation on the golfing map at the 2019 Masters. He shared the Butler Cabin with Tiger Woods that day as the Masters low amateur, and Sjelbreid noted, “He had a way about him, there was just something special about that kid.”  It was the cool, calm demeanor of someone who belonged, and that certainly carried him all the way to this day.

While lightning flashed around the East Lake property these last two days, Hovland obviously had bottled some of it. Throw in the final round 61 he shot to win last week’s BMW playoff event, Hovland has played his last five rounds of golf in 28 under.

“It’s surreal playing my best golf the last two weeks,” Hovland told the people before the trophy presentation.

Not so long ago, such consistently low scoring would be unthinkable, given that Hovland possessed the short game touch of a heavy metal drummer. Just a year ago he ranked a sad 191st in strokes gained around the green on his tour.

The earworm of horrid wedge play burrowed deeply into his noggin. “Before, when I was standing over every shot, I was like, ‘Don’t duff it, skull it, don’t leave it in the bunker,’” Hovland said on the Golf Channel earlier this week. “Me and a buddy of mine, we made up this saying: Just land it on and keep it on. We set the bar pretty low when we had a chip.” Seems that bar has raised greatly.

The 25-year-old now has the head to match his talents.

Explaining how it has all come together in this four-win season, he said, “I start to see the short game kind of come around and I believe I have all the shots. I just saw the shots that I was able to pull off in tournaments and in highly stressful situations. I coupled that with the course management stuff and just the attitude, just handling bad bounces, handling bogeys, handling bad shots.

“When I started to see that, I wasn’t stressed when I showed up to a golf tournament or a golf course. It was like, okay, whatever happens happens.”

Hovland scarcely needed a short game Sunday. He hit 15 of 18 greens. He was first in strokes gained putting. Even when he did chip poorly, as on No. 14 Sunday, leaving himself 23 feet from the hole with Schauffele as close as he would ever get (three back), his right-to-left breaking par-saver flowed into the hole as fluidly as syrup through a funnel. It was then the Nordic stoicism cracked, and Hovland let loose a mighty fist pump. This day was his. For any doubters, there’d be the three birdies at the end.

So, lutefisk for everyone. What better way to celebrate this win than with a big serving of that Norwegian delicacy of dried cod with lye?

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