October 6, 2022

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The home veterans

‘You feel comfortable in this place’: Viktor Hovland readies for PGA Championship in his adopted home state |

10 min read

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STILLWATER — It’s late April, and inside the men’s locker room at Karsten Creek Country Club, Rob Land is sitting in a brown leather chair and telling stories about Viktor Hovland.

Wednesday afternoon at Oklahoma State’s 28-year-old home course is quiet. Sun pours through the window panes and a springtime wind whirs through the trees outside. Lining the tops of the wooden lockers all around Land, the head pro and general manager at Karsten Creek since 2011, are golf bags etched with familiar names.

Rickie Fowler. Hunter Mahan. Bo Van Pelt. Peter Uihlein. Alex Noren. Matthew Wolff. Talor Gooch. One of Hovland’s bags — a black-and-white Ping with “Swinging Pete” stitched up front and the phrase “Play Your Best” scribbled at the base — is up there, too.

Rooted in the early 1980s of Lindy Miller, Willie Wood and Bob Tway, there is a fraternity of Oklahoma State golfers on PGA Tour. Sometime after the 7,400-yard Karsten Creek opened in 1994, former Cowboys began to ship tour bags home for display at the alma mater. Now it’s a tradition. Around Karsten Creek, they credit Fowler, the 2008 Ben Hogan Award winner, for reviving the retro logo featuring Pistol Pete with a golf club in his hands.

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Surrounded by these links to decades of program history, Land’s mind wanders back to Augusta National and a trip to the Masters in 2019.

That’s when Hovland announced himself to the world.

The same week Tiger Woods claimed his fifth green jacket, Hovland shot 3-under for the event and went wire-to-wire as the tournament’s low amateur with OSU coach Alan Bratton on the bag. In Butler Cabin that Sunday night, Hovland made jokes sitting next to the 15-time major winner and told CBS’ Jim Nantz that he had to go back to school the next day.

Before all that, Hovland first had to attend the amateur dinner at Augusta earlier in the week. “It’s a big deal in the golf world,” Land says. From the messy room he kept at the Masters, Hovland pulled together an outfit. On the way out the door, Land stopped him and tightened his tie.

In a matter of days, Hovland would jump on a lightning path toward PGA stardom. Right then, he was a just 21-year old with a loose tie. To this day, in his office at Karsten Creek, Land keeps a photo someone caught of the moment.

“It’s always been a protective thing,” Land says. “I want to see him do so well. If I can help in even the littlest way to make that happen, that’s all that matters to me.”

Hovland, a 24-year old from Norway, arrives at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club this week ranked sixth in the Official World Golf rankings, one of professional golf’s rising forces and an anointed star of its future.

Since turning pro in the summer of 2019, he’s recorded three PGA Tour wins, notched a pair of 12th-place finishes in majors and represented Europe in the Ryder Cup. To date, Hovland has amassed $11.5 million in career earnings, according to Spotrac. Vegas Insider backs him with the seventh-best odds at Southern Hills, 18-to-1 for a first career major victory.

As he’s charted a meteoric start on the tour, Hovland has remained planted in Stillwater. The third-year pro resides six miles south of Karsten Creek, sharing a house with OSU junior Brian Stark, the latest in a string of roommates from the Cowboys’ golf team.

“It’s one of the most simple lifestyles you’ve ever seen,” says Austin Eckroat, a former roommate. “But it’s stress free. That’s a good thing for golf.”

When Hovland is out on tour, Land oversees his house; taking care of an air conditioning issue here, a smoke alarm problem there. From the locker room at Karsten Creek, Land offers a reminder that Hovland is still a 20-something, first-time homeowner. A few weeks ago, he taught Hovland how to turn on the water heater.

Three years from the quick moment before the amateur dinner at Augusta, Land is still helping in little ways.

“Stillwater is a pretty random place compared to Oslo, Norway. And the fact that I’ve stayed here for almost six years now, it’s a little bit weird to be honest,” Hovland told the Tulsa World earlier this week. “But people like Rob make you feel comfortable in this place.”

Staying in Stillwater

By the summer of 2019, everything around Hovland was changing. As he prepared to turn pro, he sought something constant.

Hovland’s performance at the Masters vaulted him to No. 1 World Amateur Golf Rankings. His profile grew again after another top low-amateur finish that June’s U.S. Open. Still, Hovland entered the professional ranks playing on exemptions with no guarantee of a place on the tour.

The only thing worse than chasing Monday qualifiers, Hovland thought, would be chasing Monday qualifiers alone in an empty rental in a PGA hub city like Phoenix or Jupiter, Florida. So he opted to stay in Stillwater, in comfortable confines around familiar faces.

“He was leaving school earlier than he had planned,” says Alan Bratton, who has been in charge of the Cowboys program since 2013. “He knew things were going to change in his life. A lot of things. So that was one thing he could maintain stability out of.”

Bratton brought Hovland from Oslo to Stillwater in 2016, two years after another Norwegian, Kristoffer Ventura, joined the Cowboys. It was on a trip to scout Ventura in Aberdeen, Scotland, that Bratton first came across Hovland.

The pair from Norway were hardly OSU’s first connection with the Nordic nation of 5.3 million.

In the late 1970s, nearly five decades before golf manufacturer Ping signed Hovland to an equipment deal in 2019, Cowboys coach Mike Holder was among the early adopters of the revolutionary clubs produced by the company’s founder, Karsten Solheim. The Norwegian-born club designer later poured millions into Karsten Creek.

Born in Oslo less than 300 miles from Solheim’s native city of Bergen, Hovland lives minutes from a course that bears his name.

The story of his introduction to golf in Norway been well-told in his rise to PGA prominence.

He was 3 years old when his father, Harald, returned from a work stint in St. Louis with a set of clubs. Hovland came to know the game as much through his pair of instructors as the hours on his own rummaging YouTube for lessons, tricks and techniques he could bring back to the course.

He still kills afternoons and nights on YouTube, scouring for knowledge on everything from how to eat better and maximize his workouts to poker strategies.

“I’m always trying to learn,” Hovland says.

Another element of his golf upbringing: Norway’s cold, dark winters. On days the sun went down by 3 or 4 p.m., Hovland could hit balls indoors for only so long. Extra time away from the course gave way to another passion.

“In high school, for those three years, I probably averaged a movie per day,” Hovland says. “I was getting after it.”

Hovland has since slowed his pace, but the upstairs theater room is among the most well-used rooms when he’s home in Stillwater.

Growing up, he and a group of friends would blow through the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy a few times a year. Eckroat and Hovland, teammates from 2017-19, bonded over war movies, dissecting every little piece of a “1917”/”Dunkirk” double feature.

“We’re both very critical on acting,” Eckroat said. “It has to be good acting.”

Hovland’s latest Netflix endeavor with Stark — who is required by NCAA compliance rules to pay Hovland an undisclosed rent — was a British fiction series. He’s as likely to be watching a Christopher Nolan movie as he is a mystery thriller from Spain.

“I’ll watch any movie that makes you think,” Hovland says. “As long as it’s not something that’s super cheesy where you know what’s going to happen … a la ‘The Fast and Furious’.”

At home, Hovland pounds bags of popcorn like fruit snacks. “All the time,” Stark said. “Every night, he’s got popcorn.”

In college, teammates often saw him walk miles to eat at Chipotle. Now, with help from his partnership with Lexus of Tulsa, Hovland drives in the more-often-than-not instances he picks up dinner.

Since leaving OSU, he has experimented with different diets like intermittent fasting; none of them stuck. And cooking, for Hovland, is a work in progress.

“I cooked a steak last night and I had to throw it back on (the grill) because it was essentially raw when I cut into it,” he said. “We’re getting there.”

‘I feel like I can relax’

Hovland admits he never expected, three years into his PGA career, to still be in Stillwater.

Beyond familiarity, life in his college town offers Hovland a pair of practical benefits: proximity to some of the nation’s top college golfers and peace away from the tour.

At Karsten Creek, he can always find a game. And in battles with Bratton’s current crop of Cowboys, which still includes former OSU teammates Aman Gupta and Rasmus Neergarrd-Petersen, there’s accountability.

“He doesn’t want to lose to our guys,” Bratton said. “That’s got to keep him sharp. I think the intensity he brings to practice every day. He sees that responsibility to continue to drive them.”

This spring, Hovland chose not to compete after the Masters in the second week of April, granting him a rare three-week stay in Stillwater ahead of the PGA Championship. By the time he gets to Southern Hills on Monday, he will have played four practice rounds on the championship course.

As crucial as the rounds in Tulsa, the extra days at home have given Hovland more of the rounds at Karsten Creek he savors, too.

“I had a great time in college,” he says. “I just like to be around the guys on the team and I care about how they play. If I can do anything to help them, that’s great.”

Sometimes from the clubhouse at Karsten Creek, Land will see Hovland pull up to the course, grab a speaker for music and throw a bag of clubs over his shoulders.

“And he’ll just go disappear on the golf course,” Land says.

Away from the rigors of the PGA Tour calendar, Stillwater provides Hovland a reprieve from the tournament churn. He’s getting recognized more now when he ventures to The Strip or out for groceries in Stillwater, but it’s still tame.

At Karsten Creek, he gets to act like the “chubby little kid who came from Norway” in 2016, Land says. And around the course and clubhouse, Hovland still gets treated that way, too.

“When you’re out traveling and on the road, you’re constantly in it and you’re constantly thinking about how you’re playing. You’re just in that mindset so much that you don’t realize it until you get away,” Hovland says.

“When you get to Stillwater, you’re certainly out of that mindset a little bit. I feel like I can relax.”

Important calculations

Another, more recent fascination for Hovland? Poker.

Not just playing, though he does do plenty of that. Like golf, Hovland wants to know the inner dynamics and commits lots of YouTube screen time to learning them. If there’s a nearby casino during a tour stop, he’ll visit.

“I’ve gotten to know a few people within the poker community,” Hovland says. “Maybe I’ll get into some games some day.”

In the six years since Hovland arrived from Norway, teammates at OSU and opponents on the tour have seen his mental steel. The ball striking talent Hovland possesses lands him in the top 1% of the top 1% on the planet. His ability to compartmentalize the game and minimize the scope of given moment can be just as dangerous.

Take the 2019 Masters for example. Standing on the first tee on Day 1, Land’s nerves were so fraught he worried he wouldn’t keep his breakfast down. After Hovland got off the tee box, Land wondered if he felt any jitters.

“It’s just golf,” Hovland told him.

Ask Hovland if he sees similarities between golf and poker and you’ll understand what fascinates him about both. You’ll also get a window into the mindset Hovland taps into on the course.

“You can make the perfect hand and you still lose the hand. And you can hit a good shot and make a double bogey,” he says. “That’s just kind of a part of the game.”

“It’s all about percentages, right? If you know deep inside, if you evaluate the shot or the hand you just played, that’s essentially how you get better. That stuff is still going to happen to you. But the punishment is probably going to be less and less over time.”

At Southern Hills, Hovland will likely play in front of a healthy contingent of local fans. That’s something he relished when OSU won the 2018 National Championship on home soil at Karsten Creek in 2018. If Hovland is in contention on Sunday, Bratton says, maybe the crowd becomes a 15th club.

As for the Cowboys’ record in majors — Bob Tway’s 1986 PGA title marks OSU’s only major win — and a chance to lock up a first career major down the road from Stillwater this week?

Hovland has thought about both.

“All the success Oklahoma State has had through the years, there’s still only one major championship winner,” he says. “To have it happen in Oklahoma would be fantastic.

Hovland can expect to hear plenty of “Go Pokes” and “Orange Power” — maybe even some “Boomer Sooner” — from the gallery in Tulsa. And down the road, he does plan to leave Stillwater.

In the near future, Hovland will move onto a plot of land about 1,000 yards away from Eckroat in Edmond. Another former roommate, Zach Bauchou, won’t be far away, either.

Edmond offers Hovland access to Oak Tree National and a larger pool of professional players to compete with away from tour. He’s looking forward to proximity to Oklahoma City, too. But Hovland, who has an affinity for East Coast golf, says this move isn’t necessarily permanent.

Land and Bratton see it as a natural growth step. Neither of them know where Hovland ultimately wants to end up, if or when he settles down. Maybe he doesn’t know, either.

“That’s one of the great unknowns,” Land says, wondering aloud inside the locker room at Karsten Creek.

For now, he’ll just keep finding little ways to help. 

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