‘I believe I am’: Viktor Hovland shares how he became the best player on earth

Viktor Hovland and Smylie Kaufman on a podcast.

Viktor Hovland and Smylie Kaufman dove in DEEP to the details of his 2023 transformation.

YouTube.com/@TheSmylieShow

I was first tipped off to Viktor Hovland’s eccentric interests in May 2021. We were at Karsten Creek, in Stillwater, Okla., where he went to school and lived for his first few years as a pro. As part of a walk-and-talk interview, I asked Hov a simple question: Are you a morning person or a night owl?

“Definitely not a morning person,” he said. Okay, next question: What keeps you up so late? 

“I just end up freakin’ binge-watching stuff and then I look at the clock and it’s way too late and I just can’t go to bed. So I end up finding these rabbit holes.”

Rabbit holes…interesting! Okay then, what’s the last movie you watched?

“It was a weird movie. It’s called The Experiment. It’s on a true story, on the Stanford Experiment. [On the prisoners and the guards.] The just go crazy after awhile.” 

If Hovland is one thing — besides maybe the best golfer on the planet — it is curious. Unafraid to spend all night deep in a documentary. He’s maybe the most publicly curious pro golfer in the elite ranks. Hovland recently took those bingeing talents to a show called The Ancient Apocalypse on Netflix, and was so intrigued by it that he took a trip with his mother to a few of the sites featured in the show. 

“I figured me and my mom can have an enjoyable time, on the island, enjoy the heat and check out a couple things,” Hovland told Smiley Kaufman on The Smylie Show this week. When Kaufman asked him (sarcastically) about The Roman Empire, as has become common in internet circles, Hovland didn’t blink:

“I think the history is really cool, but I’d like to think more about even wayyy further back. A thousand years ago is not interesting enough.” 

Let that be a picture into who Hovland is in his spare time, when he’s not winning tournaments or starring in the Ryder Cup. But when it comes to his career, the same curiosity tends to apply. He nerds out about concepts and the physics of his craft. You don’t need to spend more than a few minutes listening to his recent chat with Smylie Kaufman to understand that Hovland is capable of hyper-fixation. It applies to his swing but also his obsession with heavy metal music. On this week’s episode of The Smylie Show, Kaufman guided Hovland into topics and just let him loose, where he explained the very technical aspects of his swing, his record-setting Ryder Cup performance and, perhaps most importantly, how he transformed his short game. Below are a few of the best bits. For the full episode, you can find The Smylie Show on various podcast platforms and also on YouTube.

How he rose. And rose. And rose. 

When you hear Hovland break it down, the journey from growing up in Norway to becoming a top 3 player in the world — it sounds quite simple. “I was good and I had a pretty golf swing … but I was never the best or anything. I looked up to the guys around me — my peers — they were way better than me, way more talented. They looked prettier. But what I did was I got better every single year. Some of my friends, they were the best, or prodigies, at the time, their development kind of stopped a few years later. Whereas I just kept practicing, kept working on things, and I got a little better every single year. 

“Obviously you have to have some talent to play on the PGA Tour, but my talent wasn’t so much the physical, it was understanding concepts and taking information and applying it to myself, and getting better at doing it over time.”

You can stretch that explanation all the way to 2023. Hovland was never bashful about having a short-game flaw during his first few years as a pro. But he began working with coach Joseph Mayo and completely revolutionized that aspect of his game. It’s still the worst category in his arsenal, but he continues to slowly improve year after year after year. And in 2023, Hovland had finally become a Strokes Gained average player from the short game. Combine that with all-world talent everywhere else and you’ve got the best of the best. 

His bunker ‘Hallelujah’ experience

Hovland and Kaufmann spent nearly 20 minutes talking about that short game transformation, but it was bunker shots that really provided some sort of epiphany.

“Honestly the bunker stuff was the biggest hallelujah experience I’ve had,” Hovland said. “I used to take so much sand in the bunker. I just remember, if I played Memorial — that I won at this year — I just had no chance. Honestly, I thought it was a stupid course for me to play. Because it is so hard to hit fairways and it is so hard to hit greens, I can stripe it and still only hit 11 or 12 greens out there. Those bunkers, you’re always going to be on a downslope and hitting downhill. If you can’t catch the ball cleanly out of the bunkers, I’m not even stopping a ball on the green when I miss the green.”

Strictly for the nerdiest golf nerds, Hovland then details how forward his pelvis is moving and left knee is bending during his bunker shots. “I’m getting really close to the ball and spinning the daylights out of it,” he said. When you spin the daylights out of it, no bunker shot is too difficult. Every scrambling opportunity feels gettable. That’s the confidence coursing through his bunker game, and his short game, lately.

Becoming the best in the world 

The Official World Golf Ranking will tell you that Scottie Scheffler is World No. 1. DataGolf will tell you that honor is Rory McIlroy’s. Nowhere, ever, has Hovland been ranked No. 1, but doesn’t he sort of feel like it? 

Hovland is No. 2 in DataGolf’s ranking, for what it’s worth, and is coming off his FedEx Cup victory, before a record-setting performance in the Ryder Cup. And Kaufman, who has been flying the Hovland flag for a few months now, asked Hovland how it feels to be considered for that top spot, and if he feels like it fits.

“It’s very flattering,” Hovland said. “Yes, the way I’ve played the last couple months, I would say I believe I am. But at the same time, what Scottie did, what Jon Rahm did, and how consistent Rory has played this year. I think any of us could be the best player in the world on any given week. How much does that matter? We’re all really, really good when we play our best.”

It’s a fair question. How many times do those elite-elite players play well at the same time? Not always. But Hovland thinks he’s in good position to really take the top spot in the coming months and years.

“I’m very optimistic about next year and the coming years if I can obviously maintain what I’ve done,” he said. “But at the same time, keep improving as I have done every single year. I’m super pumped. We’ll see how it ends up. The other guys are playing some damn good golf as well.”

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.