“I was thinking ‘What the Hell am I doing here?’”
That was a bemused but grateful Viktor Hovland, the Norwegian golfer who now finds himself tied atop the leader board at the 150th Open Championship after a second consecutive 66 over the Old Course at St. Andrews. After three rounds, he stands at 16-under, along with four-time major winner and 2014 Open Champion Rory McIlroy.
Talk about a tall order for your first final pairing at the de facto World Championship of Golf.
Hovland carries the weight of his entire country on his shoulders. No Norwegian golfer has ever won a major. That’s enough of a burden; we all saw what happened two months ago at the PGA Championship when Mito Pereira vied to be the first Chilean golfer to win a major and instead left in infamy. But standing between Hovland and the immortality he seeks – the de facto world championship of golf – is fan favorite Rory McIlroy, our generation’s standard-bearer, a seasoned veteran yearning for a re-ascent to glory, and – in his prime – a battle-hardened, cold-blooded killer in the clutch.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty crazy from where I grew up and so far away from playing the PGA TOUR, European Tour, for that matter major championships. Just to be here is very special, but to have a chance to win one is — yeah, I have to pinch myself, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to hold back tomorrow,” Hovland promised.
I’m sure it’s a welcome surprise, but he better get over it fast. The Open Championship is no place to blithely whistle your way through a walk in the park. St. Andrews looks to be windless and warm, so the golfer who wants the Claret Jug will have to outrun the competition, not outlast it; it will be a birdie barrage. But right now, Hovland may be built for the sprint.
Hovland has made a splash from his youth. He’s tall and strong – larger than Rory – with a long, fluid swing, but also with immense strength, torque, and power. He won the 2014 Norwegian Amateur as a 17-year old stripling. He captured the 2018 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach after a stellar college career at Oklahoma State. A devastating blend of touch and power, as a rookie in 2020 Hovland won twice on the PGA Tour, at the Puerto Rico and Mayakoba Mexico Tour stops.
Turning toward Europe, Hovland then won the BMW Championship in 2021, and then in 2022 he won three more times, including the Dubai Desert Classic, vaulting him to a number three ranking in the world.
Still, the majors have not been kind to Hovland until this week. In his previous 11 major champion ship starts, he never recorded a top-10, and he cracked the top-25 just four times.
Hovland now sits in the unenviable place of playing foil to beloved Rory McIlroy. Much like the massive crowds that buoyed Tiger Woods – sometimes 14 people deep and circling the entire golf hole – Rory will have the majority of the 55,000 attendant fans cheering raucously for him.
Hovland got a taste of it yesterday and didn’t blink. He matched Rory haymaker for haymaker. Hovland burst out of the gate with four consecutive birdies from three through six, not an easy stretch of the Old Course. Rory caught and passed Hovland with that time capsule hole out from the greenside bunker on 10 for an eagle, but Hovland held strong down the stretch and when he matched McIlroy’s closing birdie at 18, he secured his first tee time in a final pairing at a major.
“The bunker shot he hit on No. 10, like disregarding the situation you’re in, that’s just a filthy bunker shot,” Hovland conceded, laughing and acknowledging that he feels comfortable playing with Rory. “So you just kind of have to go, ‘hey, that was a sick shot.’ Yeah, I mean, it’s just part of the game…. Rory is a good guy, so I don’t mind saying good shot to him.”
It won’t be just a two-man battle, though fans and pundits yearn for just that. The two Camerons – USA’s Young and Australia’s Smith – are four shots back at 12-under, but four shots is just one bad swing and one bad decision. And Masters Champion Scottie Scheffler and 2020 Players Champion Si Woo Kim are only five back at 11-under.
On a benign, windless day at St. Andrews, objects in your rear view mirror are much closer thank they appear.
Is it possible that McIlroy has more pressure on him than Hovland? Yes, perhaps: the expectations of the country of Norway may not be equal to the expectations of a) a generation of adoring Rory fans; and b) the long-awaited fifth major after an eight-year drought and the commensurate soul-searching and trial and error. But Rory has been tested in the crucible of a Sunday back nine battle. Hovland, as of yet, has not. And Rory seems hungry, ready.
“The support that I’ve gotten this week has been absolutely incredible. I appreciate it and I feel it out there,” McIlroy admitted. “The galleries have been massive – the ovations coming on the greens, with the big grandstands….it’s appreciating the moment as well and appreciating the fact that it’s unbelievably cool to have a chance to win The Open at St Andrews. It’s what dreams are made of. And I’m going to try to make a dream come true tomorrow.”
So tomorrow it’s Norway versus everybody. And what’s the Scandanavian standard bearer doing to prepare?
“Yeah, I’m pretty good at doing nothing. I find that time flies by when you’re just sitting on the couch on your phone, watching shows. I’ve been really getting into Billy in Sub and watching a lot of that. I might finish it before my tee time tomorrow,” he said evenly.
Pressure? What pressure?