ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Vitkor Hovland started the week as a luggage meme. He ended it as the player most likely to turn a zero-major total into one or more over the next couple years. Hovland arrived at the PGA Championship looking, as CBS Sports' Patrick McDonald put it, like he was entering a semester-long study abroad program. A hilarious luggage photo even emerged.
Incredibly, it was not the end of the hijinks. Hovland came out the first few rounds of the golf tournament dressed like the sunrise. It got so bad that he was asked about it at one point, and he gave an all-time professional athlete answer.
"Well, J. Lindeberg, they give me this stuff and pay me money to [wear it], so I just show up and wear what they want me to wear," he said. As anyone with an apparel contract would.
The jokes ended there, though, because Hovland went out at Oak Hill and notched his third consecutive major championship top 10. He led the field in approach play and trailed by just one with three holes to go. A double bogey at the 16th unwound all the work, and he had to birdie the last just to finish T2 alongside Scottie Scheffler.
But the actual golf wasn't what was most impressive about Hovland's week, and really, his last year.
Major championship golf is about as similar as PGA Tour golf as Rory Sabbatini is to Rory McIlroy. Hovland, it appears, has unlocked the major puzzle. This seems like a natural development for a great player, but it's not. We are watching Hovland learn, nearly in real time, how to play these majors. That doesn't guarantee a future win, but this is real contention, not fake top 10s. It's difficult to envision Hovland not winning a major over the next few years.
"It sucks right now, but it is really cool to see that things are going the right direction," said Hovland. "If I just keep taking care of my business and just keep working on what I've been doing, we're going to get one of these soon."
Hovland both took some brutal blows from the heavyweight champ, Brooks Koepka, and then delivered a couple of his own. Again, this seems simplistic and remedial. It's just golf. But to stand up to Koepka on 18 tee boxes in the final round of a major (when Brooks has won four of them and you have not) is no small accomplishment. Not only did Hovland never buckle, he started stomping on him late. When he subtly walked in a birdie on No. 13 that could have tied it up, that was a real moment against a true titan.
Forget the scores. Forget the leaderboard. Forget it all. Remember this: Viktor Hovland is packaged as the giggling, gregarious Norwegian who has never met a person he didn't like. And that is all true. He's kind, affable and genuinely enjoys his life. But it's equally true that he's smitten with the game and hungry to reach the top of the mountain. The smile and the happy-go-lucky stride belie the truth, which is that Viktor Hovland has whatever intangibles one needs to stare Brooks Koepkas in the eyes and not care at all what they have done or what they will do.
Plenty of players contend at majors. Loads of them rack up those little yellow boxes you've no doubt reviewed on Wikipedia. It's only a tiny percentage, though, that don't give a damn about Koepka's march toward history. You don't know who those guys are until they reveal themselves.
I didn't know Hovland was one until this week.
But make no mistake, after 18 rounds in the ring with a five-time champ, it became exceedingly clear Sunday evening as the sun faded on his dream and this tournament and his chance: He is.
A few additional thoughts to wrap up PGA Championship week ...
We need to talk about Michael Block
His preposterous story is everywhere, including here. The short version: Club pro who was a mediocre (at best!) college player qualifies, lives out one of the all-time dream golf weeks and closes it with an ace on No. 15 on a Sunday at a major while playing with four-time major champion Rory McIlroy. If this seems impossible, well, yeah. At one point on Sunday, a colleague openly wondered whether it was more likely the Goodyear blimp fall on top of Koepka coming up the 17th hole allowing Hovland to win than a club pro making a 1 next to McIlroy in the final round of a major to get into the top 15 and qualify for next year's PGA Championship
The script honestly wouldn't make it past a first read: Yeah, this is perhaps a little too much.
One quote from his week stands alone.
"I'll look back at it, and I'll say, 'I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm glad you enjoyed the moment,'" Block said Saturday after his third round. "I've learned at this point to enjoy the moment, to sit back and relax and enjoy it because it goes by fast, and life goes by fast.
"Before you know it, you're 60 years old and retired and look back at the videos on this and remember that was the best week of my life. And more than likely, this is probably going to be the best week of my life. So, I'm going to sit back as much as I can with my friends and family at the house we rented and watch the videos tonight and see all my new followers on Instagram. It's been crazy, it's been awesome."
All of that was before he made the ace on Sunday to help secure his spot for the 2024 PGA.
It's hard to think of a comparison here, and I suppose that's the point. A former college player giving lessons in his mid-40s could never even sniff the NBA, NHL or NFL. It wouldn't even be a question. In golf, though? Your scores are your scores. You're not defended by 23-year-old freaks of nature. You don't have to deal with young pitchers throwing 99 mph. The game stays the same as it's always been. It's you, the ball and 18 cups. Go get it.
There are a thousand things that convey this romance -- Rory's heartbreak at St. Andrews last year, Phil Mickelson winning the PGA at age 50 two years ago, an in-his-60s Larry Mize clipping peak-of-his-powers Bryson DeChambeau for a round at the Masters all come to mind -- and now we have another.
Michael Block, giver of golf lessons, regular 46-year-old dad, trading shots with Rory on the weekend at a major. This is impossible. The odds of even being one of the 20 club pros who make it into the PGA are so long. The odds of then making it to the weekend are even longer. Throw in the odds of then being in the top 10. Add all that up, and then put on top of it the odds of being paired with one of the best players of the last 25 years and making a 1 on him with four holes left in the tournament? Come on.
The most romantic sport.
Koepka shut the door
Brooks' reputation as a closer quietly wavered a bit before this Sunday. In the last six instances of him entering the final round inside the top 10 on a major leaderboard, here were his scores: 68, 70, 74, 74, 74, 75.
You can't close them all, but when the switch flips like this from early in your career when you close them all to a bit later when you do not, it's sometimes difficult to get it out of your head. The tide starts to turn a bit, and if you're self-aware, you realize you're not the world beater you once thought you were.
This is true of him both on the course and off of it as well.
There are 100 ways to contextualize this, but let's go back to his "Full Swing" Netflix episode when he appeared a mentally broken man. Was there some physical struggle in there? Absolutely. How could there not be after what he endured? But that did not seem to be the majority of the problem with him in that moment. He seemed mentally lost. Doubt creeps in over time. Other players become better than you were. There are no greats who have not experienced this reality. To pull yourself all the way back from the darkest mental places is a skill, and Koepka is perhaps the best in the world at this specific thing.
He does this in the macro (see above) and in the micro as well. We saw that at Oak Hill. It's one thing to say that you made a mental mistake against Jon Rahm in the final round of the Masters. It's an entirely other thing to go out and fix it while playing in the final pairing again at the very next major.
Frankly, all of it is astonishing to watch because of how easy he makes it look.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Koepka's last six years is his ability to get himself into the mental headspace during a big event where nothing that happens before or after the moment matters to him at all.
It's so simple to envision but not easy execute. Koepka has found the perfect balance of care. Not too much. Not too little. It's an impossible balance for a great champion, but he has it nailed.
What to make of Rory
McIlroy finished T7, but it never really felt like he had a chance given who was at the top of the leaderboard. Will Koepka passing him with five majors light a fire under him? Are his mistakes mental? Physical? Emotional? Rory remains -- and it's not even close -- the most fun player in the world to try and figure out, to try and solve. My hope is this: Brooks passing Rory and tying Seve Ballesteros snaps something inside of him, and we get five straight years of those two golfers trading majors back and forth in a race to Arnold Palmer (seven), Tom Watson (eight) and Gary Player (nine).
There is a clear difference between Brooks and Scottie Scheffler, who exist completely in the moment, and Rory, who sometimes probably cares a little too much about history and his place in it. It comes from a good place, of course, but when you don't trust that your process is enough and it leads you to try and win the tournament on every other swing, it makes it difficult to really be in it late on Sunday afternoons.
"I was more accepting of things out there, and I think it's hard," McIlroy said on Sunday. "Like the previous major championship at Augusta [National], all I think about is winning, winning, winning, to try to win that green jacket, and you know, I then don't really think about just playing a tournament and the cadence that goes along with getting into rounds and whatever.
"I go to the second tee on Friday morning or Friday afternoon, and I see I'm already 10 back of Brooks or whatever. So then I'm thinking, 'Oh, geez, I have no chance of winning,' and things sort of crumble. It's just like being a bit mentally fragile because you're so focused on the one thing you're trying to do when, in essence, you just need to play a golf tournament and see where the chips fall at the end of the week."
Rory is one of the great players in the history of the game, but it has apparently become difficult for him to trust that his baseline will win the week after 72 holes and have him in the mix on Sunday afternoon. Brooks trusts this, which allows him to completely focus on every single moment. Rory does not, which poses several problems.
How many will Brooks win?
What's the number for you? It's not five. Whatever demons existed have been shed. He should be the favorite at them all. Will he get to six (Phil Mickelson, Nick Faldo, Lee Trevino), seven (Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones), eight (Tom Watson), nine (Gary Player, Ben Hogan) ... or even ... 10?! He can't, right?! Except, you know, maybe he could.
Koepka career in majors:— Jamie Kennedy (@jamierkennedy) May 21, 2023
• 14% win percentage
• 25% top 3 finish
• 39% top 5 finish
• 50% top 10 finish
Tiger's career in majors:
• 16% win percentage
• 28% top 3 finish
• 36% top 5 finish
• 45% top 10 finish
Brooks Koepka's estimated skill (without course fit/major bumps) was +1.0 heading into the PGA. Incredible he now has 5 major wins without sniffing the right side of this distribution.— data golf (@DataGolf) May 22, 2023
His major vs non-major gap is now 1.37 strokes per round—only Will Z has a larger gap. pic.twitter.com/dW5NgOPTdn
The last seven winners of the PGA Championship have been full-time hitters only. It's not the most historic or the most meaningful note, but ... is the PGA Championship the most exciting major going right now?
- 2017: Justin Thomas
- 2018: Brooks Koepka (nearly Tiger Woods)
- 2019: Brooks Koepka (nearly Dustin Johnson)
- 2020: Collin Morikawa
- 2021: Phil Mickelson (nearly Brooks Koepka)
- 2022: Justin Thomas
- 2023: Brooks Koepka