As an Irishman, Padraig Harrington could well blanch at an amateur spurning a guaranteed Open Championship berth at Royal Portrush to start the search for money instead. Yet as the Ryder Cup captain, Harrington cannot help but be excited for what Viktor Hovland’s decision to turn professional might mean for Europe’s chances at Whistling Straits next year.
Last Sunday, Hovland, the 21-year-old from Norway, finished in a tie for 12th at Pebble Beach, knocking a certain Jack Nicklaus out of the record books as he did so. With a four-under total of 280, Hovland set a new low mark for an amateur in US Open history, beating Nicklaus’s score in 1960 by two shots.
That was the final confirmation the engineer’s son from Oslo was ready for the big league; but there was one downside. As the reigning US Amateur champion, Hovland had been granted an Open invite, but it came with the traditional R&A caveat that it would apply only if he remained in the non-paid ranks.
In his pursuit for enough dollars on the PGA Tour to earn his card, Holland felt his career could not wait the extra five weeks. Hovland accepted a sponsor’s exemption for the Travelers Championship in Connecticut and, after making his first cut as a pro on Friday, he will today receive his first cheque.
On the course, that is. Off it, he has already signed contracts with clubmaker Ping and Swedish designer J Lindeberg that turned him into an overnight millionaire. Hovland’s career has begun in a blaze of lucrative publicity and Harrington, for one, will be intrigued to see how far he can go and, just as pertinently for the Dubliner, how fast he can get there.
“The most interesting thing to come out of the US Open was Viktor,” Harrington said. “I am asking myself, ‘Is he possibly going to be in my team next year?’ Viktor showed his colours last week and I hope he will take European membership and make an effort to make it because if he’s as good as he looks, he’ll probably be in that team.”
Hovland has until next May to send in his European Tour forms to become eligible but, as he himself says, “the Ryder Cup seems a long way off at the moment”. If he was to fight his way on to Harrington’s side, either automatically or as one of the three wild cards, then he would become the first European to make it at the first time of asking since Sergio Garcia in 1999 and on either team since Rickie Fowler in 2010.
The Fowler connection would be appropriate as he has become something of a mentor to Hovland. They both attended Oklahoma State University, reached world No 1 in the amateur rankings and won the Ben Hogan Award, awarded to the best college player in the US. Now, they share an agent.
The similarities do not end there as Hovland also has an engaging personality. Yet when it comes to smiling, Hovland’s continuous mouth-stretching at Pebble Beach suggested he has no peer. Certainly, Fowler is a fan. “Viktor’s a great guy and someone it’s hard not to root for because of the manner in which he plays the game and the manner in which he conducts himself and the enjoyment he is so obviously having out there,” Fowler said. “He is great fun to watch and the fans clearly take to him.”
Indeed they do and not just for his perma-beam. Hovland’s swing resembles that of Dustin Johnson, with his arms extended away from his body and his dramatic hip rotation keeping the club face square as he powers through the ball. Despite standing 5ft 10in, his motion can generate distances that could establish him as one of the longest on the circuit. And his short game stats can be equally as impressive.
“When Viktor’s on, he makes the game look easy,” Fowler said. “I think he’s going to have a lot of success as a pro and I hope that would be sooner rather than later. Yeah, I’m looking forward to helping him if I can, but this kid may not need it. He might come out and just get on a run and go.”
That is Hovland’s intention. He is allowed seven sponsor exemptions from which he would have to amass a minimum of 266 FedEx Cup points – roughly equating to two top-five displays – if he wants more.
On Thursday he will tee up at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, where there are two Open places up for grabs. “I really did not want to sacrifice my place at Portrush but I could still make it,” Hovland said. “That would be the perfect scenario.”