USGA CHAMPIONS
U.S. Amateur Champion Hovland Relishing ‘Internship’ April 9, 2019 By Dave Shedloski

Reigning U.S. Amateur champ Viktor Hovland has earned starts in a number of prestigious professional events in 2019. (USGA/Chris Keane)

Even before he shot a closing 2-under-par 70 to tie for 41st place in last month’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, Viktor Hovland wasn’t in awe of the PGA Tour players he was invited to compete against by virtue of his win last August in the 118th U.S. Amateur Championship.

That’s not to say he didn’t have a healthy appreciation for the skill level of the men who have made golf their careers. And that appreciation and respect only increased after Hovland played at Bay Hill Club in Orlando and in January at the Farmer’s Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, which will host its second U.S. Open Championship in 2021.

But the Oklahoma State junior, who will tee it up alongside 2018 Masters Tournament champion Patrick Reed on Thursday at Augusta National, didn’t feel out of his element or overwhelmed during the early stages of his “internship” among the tour players. That’s partly a result of the confidence he gained from his dominant U.S. Amateur victory last August at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links, and partly from seeing up close how well his overall game stacks up.

“For the most part, I’m just trying to soak it all in and try to learn,” Hovland, 21, said while competing at Bay Hill. “I want to play well, but it’s mostly a great learning experience, and it’s a dream come true, because I didn’t really see it happening two years ago. To still be in school and have the opportunity to play in a few PGA Tour events … it’s pretty sick.

“What I’ve learned already is that these guys are not superhuman. Even though they shoot some good numbers, it’s not like you have to change your whole game to be competitive with them. You just need to do what you do well. And you have to have a great short game; that seems to be something that all of these guys do really well.”

Hovland wasn’t particularly happy with his game at Bay Hill, especially his iron play, but he conceded, “It was good to see that I can get around a course like this with below-average stuff.”

A native of Oslo, Norway, Hovland missed the cut at the Farmer’s Insurance Open with a respectable 1-over 145 total, but he completed 72 holes at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 1-under 287. That was good enough to tie the likes of world No. 9 Rickie Fowler, and finish a stroke ahead of 2015 U.S. Amateur winner Bryson DeChambeau, who is ranked sixth in the world. It’s no wonder he said, “I feel comfortable on the bigger stage.”

And why does he feel comfortable? Well, when you take apart all comers in the U.S. Amateur – Hovland trailed for just one hole through six matches – at a challenging venue like Pebble Beach, a bounce of confidence is predictable, if not warranted.

“Yeah, I would say I have more confidence, but it is not just one tournament that makes you feel that way,” Hovland said. “You feel you belong on a higher stage, sure, because to win that championship [the U.S. Amateur], you’ve played some very good golf. But you want to see that you play consistently well at other courses and other tournaments. Obviously, that’s a very big stepping stone.”

He has three of the biggest coming up, including a return to Pebble Beach in June for the 119th U.S. Open. This week, he is playing in his first Masters, becoming the first Norwegian to compete at Augusta National Golf Club. In July, provided he hasn’t turned professional, which he admits he is considering, Hovland will get a crack at a third major in The Open Championship at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.

In between the Masters and U.S. Open, and in addition to his college golf schedule, Hovland will compete in the Memorial Tournament in suburban Columbus, Ohio, which traditionally invites the U.S. Amateur champion. That is not surprising, given that the event is hosted by eight-time USGA champion Jack Nicklaus, who won the second of his two U.S. Amateur titles in 1961 at Pebble Beach.

Pebble Beach presents a unique opportunity, a chance for an encore of sorts for Hovland, who helped Oklahoma State capture its 11th NCAA men’s title last May.

“I think Pebble Beach really fits me well. It’s a good course for me, and I like the way it sets up for my game,” Hovland said. “You have to drive it straight, and if you do that well you’ll have a lot of short irons in. It fit me well for the Amateur, but it will be interesting how it is set up for the U.S. Open.”

A movie enthusiast who learned to speak English from watching films, Hovland is enjoying the spoils of being the U.S. Amateur champion, but he doesn’t feel different about himself or his game, and he fends off the notion that he has to be different after winning the game’s most revered amateur championship.

“I admit that there is some pressure every time you tee it up as U.S. Amateur champion,” he said. “People expect you to play to certain standards, but I try to think about how I feel about it and goals that I have. Most of the pressure comes from myself and the level I want to perform at. It’s nice that people might look at me a little differently, but I’m not a different player because of it.”

Eventually, however, he’ll want to be a different player – a better player. He’ll want to join the professional ranks. By the same token, he’s not in a hurry to get there, staying patient as he takes the next steps and enjoys each new experience – including some high-profile major pairings. At the Masters, he will join defending champion Patrick Reed, and at the U.S. Open he’ll be paired with two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari, the 2018 Open champion at Carnoustie.

“I think it will be really cool playing with Brooks and Francesco,” said Hovland. “Maybe we can even talk a little Ryder Cup action out there. It will be different than what I’ve been doing so far on the PGA Tour, where so far I’ve been paired with guys who you could say are still relatively new and haven’t fully established themselves on Tour. I mean, the majors will be different. Playing with Patrick Reed at Augusta, that will be interesting, too. Those are next-level pairings from what I’ve seen thus far.”

“I’ve always wanted to play on the PGA Tour, so it’s really cool to have an internship, if I might call it that,” Hovland added. “It’s nice to be an amateur and just play without any of the pressures that go with it. But I haven’t really thought about playing in the Masters or U.S. Open as much as you might think. I want to stay more in the present and not look ahead. I don’t want to waste any opportunities, wherever they are. I try to get as much out of every tournament that I play as possible, to keep getting better.”

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.

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