Norway’s Viktor Hovland battles McIlroy, weight of history at 150th Open Championship
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Norway’s Viktor Hovland battles McIlroy, weight of history at 150th Open Championship

Mayakoba Golf Classic - Final Round PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO - DECEMBER 06: Viktor Hovland of Norway looks on over the 13th green during the final round of the Mayakoba Golf Classic at El Camaleón Golf Club on December 06, 2020 in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)


“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 6-under 66 on the Old Course at St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland.

After three rounds, he stands at 16-under 200, 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 male 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 is the clear fan favorite in McIlroy, this generation’s standard-bearer, a seasoned veteran yearning for a re-ascent to glory and, at his best, 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 said.

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. Hovland, however may be built for the sprint.

Hovland has made a splash from his youth. He’s tall and strong, 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 to cap a stellar amateur and college career at Oklahoma State. As a rookie in 2020, Hovland won twice on the PGA Tour, at the Puerto Rico Open and the World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba in Mexico.

Turning toward Europe, Hovland then won the BMW Championship in Germany in 2021, defended his title in Mayakoba and took down Tiger Woods' Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. In 2022, he won the Dubai Desert Classic, vaulting him to a No. 3 ranking in the world.

Still, the majors have not been kind to Hovland until this week. In his previous 11 major championship 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 McIlroy. Much like the massive crowds that buoyed Tiger Woods -- sometimes 14 people deep and encircling entire golf holes -- McIlroy 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 McIlroy haymaker for haymaker. Hovland burst out of the gate with four consecutive birdies from Nos. 3 through 6 -- not an easy stretch of the Old Course. McIlroy 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 Sunday 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.”

DESPITE A TRIPLE BOGEY OF A SHIRT, RORY MCILROY IS ONE STROKE BEHIND AFTER ONE ROUND OF THE 2022 U.S. OPEN AT THE COUNTRY CLUB

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 total, and four shots is just one bad swing and one bad decision. And Masters champion Scottie Scheffler and 2019 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 said. “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,” Hovland said. "I've been really getting into Billy in Sub and watching a lot of that. I might finish it before my tee time tomorrow."

Pressure? What pressure?

About the author

Jay Flemma

Jay Flemma

Starting with a blog and a dream, Jay Flemma launched his first sports-writing website in 2004. Some 13 years and 25 major golf championships later, Jay has won multiple national sports writing awards. Besides GNN, his work has appeared in numerous books as well as on-line at Cybergolf, PGA.com, GolfObserver, GolfChannel.com and many other sites and print magazines. When not trying to find a lost golf ball, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet, sports and trademark lawyer in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.