PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Viktor Hovland knows his moment on golf’s biggest stage is coming. Of course, he’d be fine if it would just hurry up and get here already.
For the third straight major, the 25-year-old Norwegian with the incandescent wardrobe and the even more vibrant game found his name floating near the top leaderboard on the final day. And for the third straight major, Hovland watched someone else putt out on the 18th and raise their arms in triumph.
Last summer on the Old Course at St. Andrews, it was Cam Smith. Last month at Augusta National, it was Jon Rahm. On Sunday at a suddenly forgiving Oak Hill, it was playing partner Brooks Koepka, who spent four entertaining and occasionally tense hours fending off challenge after challenge from Hovland before pulling away in the fading western New York sunlight.
Hovland’s hopes of becoming the first Norwegian to win a major evaporated on the par-4 16th when his tee shot sailed into a fairway bunker. Trailing by a shot and with Koepka’s ball in the rough, Hovland pulled out a 9-iron and attempted to gouge the ball to safety, only to see it disappear into the lip.
One drop, one punch out, one so-so approach and two putts later, the deficit was four. While Hovland salvaged a tie with Scottie Scheffler for second by draining a nervy 15-footer on 18 to finish off a 2-under 68 to wind up at 7 under for the tournament, the T2 next to his name is going to sting for a bit. At least until he gets to Los Angeles Country Club next month for the U.S. Open.
Hovland knows he’s close. He’s growing increasingly comfortable in the exacting crucible the spotlight of a major provides. Four days of par or better golf on the demanding East Course proved it yet again.
“Felt like I played really solid golf,” Hovland said. “I gave myself a lot of looks. When I was out of position, I made some great short-game shots and got out of there with a par, but Brooks was hard to catch.”
Hovland came as close as anyone, responding nearly every time Koepka threatened to pull away. Koepka’s lead ballooned from one shot to three after he birdied the second, third and fourth holes.
Hovland didn’t waver, getting back within two after consecutive birdies on four and five. He then spent the two hours stalking one of the marquee players in the game until one iffy swing, one vanishing ball and one look of disgust on the 16th let it get away.
“It sucks right now, but it is really cool to see that things are going the right direction,” Hovland said. “If I just keep taking care of my business and just keep working on what I’ve been doing, I think we’re going to get one of these soon.”
Every other player in the 156-man field — including Koepka — posted at least one round over par during four challenging days at brutish Oak Hill. Hovland did not. That’s what made the outcome a little tougher to swallow than what happened at St. Andrews and Augusta National.
Hovland was tied for the lead with Rory McIlroy heading into Sunday at the Old Course only to shoot a 2-over 74, not nearly enough to match a near flawless 18 holes by Smith. Hovland was three behind Koepka when he teed off in the final round at Augusta before overshooting the green on the par-3 sixth, leading to a double-bogey that essentially dropped him from serious contention.
There were no real wobbles this time until the 16th. Though rather than let a 9-iron he caught a little too thin get to him, he regained two shots over the final two holes against a player eight years his senior who ranks among one of the best players under pressure of his generation.
Hovland may soon be one of them.
“It’s not easy going toe to toe with a guy like (Koepka),” Hovland said. “He is not going to give you anything, and I didn’t really feel like I gave him anything either until 16. So I feel like I belong out here, and I just have got to get a little bit better, and hopefully it goes my way the next time.”
A time that appears to be drawing nearer with each opportunity. The 2018 U.S. Amateur champion isn’t afraid of the attention. His signature color is orange, a nod to his playing days at Oklahoma State.
Orange is hard to miss in the middle of all that green. So is Hovland’s presence late on Sunday afternoons with the entire sport watching.
“I’ve seen him the last couple of nights, he’s been the last one here working on his game,” McIlroy said. “If he keeps doing that sort of stuff, one will fall into his lap.”