Statement wins don’t usually happen in November. Autumnal golf is fertile ground for the first-time winner, the 40-something who turns back the clock, the total outsider who picks one off out of nowhere. But each golf tournament presents an open canvas, a fresh opportunity to grow as a player and send a message to your peers. It’s why Viktor Hovland made the late-year trip to Mexico. He sure got his money’s worth.
The 24-year-old Norweigan successfully defended his title at Mayakoba with a tournament-record score of 23 under, capturing the World Wide Technology Championship for his third career PGA Tour victory—and a massive confidence boost. He began Sunday with a two-shot lead and promptly suffocated his chasers’ ambitions by playing his first 11 holes in four under. It wasn’t quite so aesthetically pleasing coming in—his old nemesis reared its nasty head when he chunked a chip on 13—but you don’t need style points with that kind of daylight between you and No. 2. A four-under 67 more than sufficed.
This was not Hovland’s first W, sure, but this was the first time he slammed the door shut when it was his door to slam. It’s a vital skill for a player of his talent to develop, and so this was not an insignificant day in his career.
“It feels awesome,” Hovland said. “Obviously, I felt like my game was in a good spot going into this week, and I know this course fits my game really well. But there was some stuff that didn’t quite go my way at the start of the week. It was nice to overcome those troubles …”
Troubles indeed. It’s hard to throw around the word adversity in the context of a fall event played in a Mexican paradise, but hear us out. On Wednesday, Hovland and Danny Lee were doing what pros do during pre-tournament practice days—they were wailing away at golf balls, fixated on the readings of a launch monitor. The cool kids call it speed training. Hovland was curious if Lee would pick up any speed with his driver, an inch longer than Lee’s, and so he handed his gamer over and told him to fire away. Lee put every ounce of his not-small frame into it, recoiled and snapped the club into pieces. Hovland didn’t have a backup shaft on-site, but James Hahn came to the rescue with a good-enough replacement that would have to do. There was no alternative.
So Hovland headed to a nearby golf course—the pro-am was taking place at El Camaleon and the range only let him hit shots with one wind direction—for some last-minute cramming and decided he could make this thing work. He was pleasantly surprised at how much control he had over it in a Thursday 67, then striped it again and again during a second-round 65 that should’ve been lower. Yes, should is a dangerous game in golf, but this was a particularly brutal exhale from the golf gods. On his 10th hole on Friday, he sent a slightly pushed approach just a few paces right of the flag. It t-boned a sprinkler head and launched 20-plus yards into the unnavigable mangrove forest that border virtually every hole at El Cameleon. A lost ball. A double bogey. He birdied his very next hole and four more before he was finished.
Finally, the funny stuff subsided on Saturday. Hovland was left to his own devices—and one of James Hahn’s—and it became unmistakably clear that those devices were a whole lot better than anyone else’s. He made shooting 62 as easy as one possibly can; his playing partner, Anirban Lahiri, not an exaggeration-prone man, thought it could’ve easily been a 59. And that set things up nicely heading into Sunday.
“I slept great, but I woke up really early this morning and I was pretty nervous and excited to get going,” Hovland said. “To be able to kind of sleep on the lead and go out in kind of the conditions early on today, because it was blowing pretty hard on the front nine. Frankly, I did not play well at all the front nine, but I was able to hang in there and make a lot of good putts. I was really happy to be able to just kind of pull off the round that I did today without having my best stuff.”
On his heels just three behind was a hard-chasing Justin Thomas, who found himself dead last after playing his opening nine holes of the week in three over, then went worst-to-first in just 41 holes. No one gets hot like JT, and when he got his claws on a share of the lead on Saturday afternoon, you figured he was the man to beat. But his pace slowed considerably, and a two-under 69 on Sunday saw him finish one behind a very, very popular silver medalist: Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz.
“I didn’t get off to a good enough start to really put any pressure on Viktor,” Thomas said. “It was a little windier, a little harder today, but I still wasn’t swinging it very good, and I felt like I really got away with how I felt over the ball the last couple days better than I would have thought. I think it just kind of caught up to me today.”
A different tune, as you might imagine, from Ortiz, who was delighted to give a damn good show to the smattering of fans in attendance (only resort guests, player guests and corporate guests were allowed on-site this week) with a closing 66, including birdies on five of his last seven holes.
“I’m really proud,” Ortiz said. “It was a tough day. I couldn’t really find anything on the front nine and I just kept pushing. The people, having them out here, all my friends, I just found a way to get something going. And it’s funny how golf works, but once you hit that first shot that you see and how you want it, just clicks and I just find that confidence that I needed to finish strong.”
You’d do well to find two places as culturally and topographically different as Norway and Mexico, but Hovland has found a second home on the Gulf. He’s won two of his three tournaments in Mexico, both in the fall. The other came in an opposite-field event in Puerto Rico. He has not yet poached one of the shinier trophies on the PGA Tour, and majors are a whole separate conversation, but he did make his first Ryder Cup appearance in September. Plus, a man can only win the tournament he’s playing in. And if you saw the manner in which Hovland won this one, you know those conquests are only a matter of time.