RIVIERA MAYA, Mexico — Perhaps you were hoping for a sleepy Sunday leader board so you could lock in on the NFL games with a clear conscience. This chunk of the calendar used to be known as the “silly season” in the pre-FedEx Cup days, and even now November typically ushers golf into a gentle autumnal slumber that runs ‘til Maui.
Mayakoba, however, has other plans. The 2021 World Wide Technology Championship is doing everything in its power to siphon some attention its way. Defending champion Viktor Hovland holds a two-shot lead heading into Sunday thanks to a nine-under 62 that his playing partner thought could’ve easily been a 59. He’ll be paired in the final round with fellow Oklahoma Stater Talor Gooch, who found a heater halfway through his back-nine on Saturday, and closely trailed by the best player in the field, Justin Thomas, who sits three back at 16 under. On the surface, that’s anything but a surprise. There’s a reason both Hovland and Thomas adorn the signage plastered around this glitzy resort enclave. When you consider the events of Wednesday and Thursday, however . . .
Let’s start with Hovland, who surely did something to offend the Golf Gods. On Wednesday, he and Danny Lee were shooting the breeze during a speed session on the driving range. For those not familiar, a speed session is a distinctly modern practice technique that involves hitting the golf ball has hard as you possibly can. Hovland, a particularly curious young man, wanted to know if Lee would pick up ball speed, the currency of professional golf these days, with his driver, which was an inch longer. He encouraged Lee to take a rip. Perhaps he shouldn’t have—Lee snapped Hovland’s driver into multiple places. Making matters worse, the tour equipment trucksv don’t make it to eastern Mexico, and Hovland didn’t have a backup shaft. He’d have to make due with the replacement offered up by James Hahn, which is similar but half an inch shorter than Viktor’s gamer.
He’s hardly missed a fairway with it this week—which is especially crucial at El Camaleon, where wide misses turn into penalty strokes.
“On this golf course it’s perfect because I can get up on these tight holes and just kind of know that it’s going to go pretty straight if I just hit down on it a little bit and just flight one down,” Hovland said. “It’s been amazing.”
The young Norweigan was on the wrong end of another brutal break on Thursday, and he couldn’t blame a fellow tour pro for this one. On his 10th hole of the day, Hovland sent an approach four paces right of a tucked flag. It boinged off a sprinkler head like one of those bouncy balls you played with as a kid. A golfer’s worst nightmare. His ball kicked into the don’t-even-try mangroves and led to a brutal double bogey.
There were no hijinks on Saturday; just one of the world’s best golfers with his A-game.
“I played really, really well today, or the whole week. Yeah, it’s what I’m most happy with, just the fact that all those things happened is that I didn’t freak out or anything. Obviously it wasn’t the ideal situation.”
That Thomas is within even shouting distance of Hovland constitutes a minor miracle given the way his week started. The World No. 7 struggled to rev up the competitive engine and slept-walk through a three-over opening nine holes that had him in dead-last place. He proceeded to play his next 41 holes in 19 under par and held a share of the lead around 2 p.m. local time but failed to match Hovland’s strong finish.
“I’m very, very proud of myself to be where I’m at,” said Thomas after his 64. “It’s funny, I played with Cantlay the first two rounds of the BMW this year, and he had a very similar start. He was off to a very, very sluggish start. He was hitting it really bad and scrambling for pars and bogeys, and on an extremely easy golf course like that, I think he was a couple over around the turn, and we all know what happened that week.
“So I kind of remind myself of that because I watched him just stay patient and plod his way along. And I know this is a course, you can get on crazy kinds of runs out here. It feels good to know I haven’t really done anything special, but I’ve just kind of checked the boxes and done a lot of things I need to do and put ourselves in a good spot.”
Assuming he’s the type to relish a challenge—you don’t get to this level without that mentality—Gooch couldn’t ask for a better scenario to chase his first PGA Tour victory.
“It’s what you play golf for,” said the 29-year-old, who is yet another product of the golf assembly line at Oklahoma State University. A birdie-eagle-birdie stretch from Nos. 12-14 keyed a 63 that was the second-best round of the day behind Hovland.
“This is at the highest level—in the final group on Sunday and to do it with two of the best players in the world right now, two Ryder Cuppers, that’s what it’s about.”