Chipping no longer a weakness for Viktor Hovland, says caddie Shay Knight

Viktor Hovland and caddie Shay Knight. Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Since the month of December, few players in the world have been as hot as Norway’s Viktor Hovland.

The 23-year-old Oklahoma State product notched his second win of the 2020 calendar year to start December in the Mayakoba Golf Classic and in his four starts since then have consisted of a T31 at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, a T2 at the Farmers Insurance Open, a T5 at the Genesis Invitational and another T2 on Sunday in the WGC-Workday Championship.

Outside of the victory, of course, last week’s effort at The Concession might be the most impressive.

Let’s start with Friday.

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Hovland, who is all the way up to No. 13 in the Official World Golf Ranking, entered the ninth hole at The Concession – his 18th hole of the day – cruising along at 7 under for the second round and coming off birdies at Nos. 7 and 8.

But he hit big-time trouble on No. 9. With his approach from a bunker on the par 4, Hovland thinned the shot and sent it sailing over the green and into the junk. The third shot zipped through the green and into a bunker, right under the lip, leaving virtually no shot. Ultimately, he sent the ball through the green and into the junk again, where he’d have to take an unplayable lie. His sixth shot found the crest of the fringe but checked up and rolled back down a slope. From there, he would get up and down for a quadruple-bogey 8 and a 3-under 69 for the day – 4 under through 36 holes and seven shots behind halfway leader Brooks Koepka (11 under).

It could have been a crushing blow for Hovland giving back those four strokes after all that hard work, but he brushed it off with a 5-under 31 on the front nine Saturday on his way to a 6-under 66 to enter the final round tied for seventh at 10 under, five off the lead.

“That’s the thing,” Hovland’s caddie Shay Knight told The Caddie Network. “The way he was playing – he was a little tired coming down the ninth Friday, last hole of the day – and he hit that shot out of the blue. After the round, he spoke about how well he’d been playing and is playing. He took it on the chin as best he could. On Saturday, to start as good as he did, it deleted the finish from the previous day. He has the heart of a lion. The way he came back after that is just proof of how strong he is mentally and physically.”

Hovland got off to another excellent start on Sunday – a 4-under 32 on the front – to get right into contention with a chance to do something only for players have done on the PGA Tour since 1980: win a tournament where they made a quadruple bogey.

It looked like Hovland might bow out of the mix on the par-5 13th hole. He found trouble with his second shot there, leading to an awkward lie in some weeds, before pulling off one of the best up-and-downs for birdie you’ll ever see.

“At first, he wanted a full lob wedge to go through the ferns, or whatever that stuff was,” Knight said. “Straight away, I said, ‘no.’ There was no margin for error. I said, ‘why don’t you get a putter, take it back 3 inches and hit it.’ He said, ‘I can’t get to the ball.’ I said, ‘you can’t get to the ball with a lob wedge, either.’ I wanted him to take the putter because it was straight downhill and down grain. That’s where my head was at. He said, ‘how about 3 wood?’ He took that out and you could see he had potential for an air swing. I said, ‘I don’t like that.’ He said he needed something with loft and took 7 iron out and then asked what I thought. I said I loved that play. There was a gap in the ferns to get the club somewhat going through to hit the shot. He pulled that off and made birdie. It was a huge relief for both of us. To pull it off was mind blowing.”

Another young star, 24-year-old reigning PGA Champion Collin Morikawa, would win the tournament finishing three strokes ahead of Hovland and Billy Horschel.

But that won’t deter the self-deprecating Hovland, who is seeing significant improvement in his chipping of late after saying on television in early 2020, “I suck at chipping.”

As Knight notes, that perceived weakness is turning into a strength… as we saw on No. 13 Sunday.

“He’s been working with Jeff Smith for the last 3-4 months and Jeff was a short game coach before doing what he does now – short game, full game, putting, etc.,” Knight said. “He’s worked hard improving his action with his chipping. He used to use the leading edge a lot. On Bermuda grass – people may or may not know this – there’s a high possibility to chunk it. You have to hit it perfect. He uses the bounce a lot more now and has improved his action to rectify those issues. It’s only going to get better, and the belief will get stronger. It’s not a weakness anymore.”

With the way Hovland is playing, Knight can’t wait to get started this week at Bay Hill in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

“This feels like a major championship again,” Knight said. “The last two weeks felt like majors at Riviera and Concession last week. It was a little softer last week than we excepted, but still felt like a major and we were in contention again. This week, it’s another brute of a course. This rye grass is tough. You’ve got to hit fairways and greens. That’s right up Viktor’s alley. Play well again this week and go into next week at The Players with a lot of momentum.”

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