Viktor Hovland played the best golf of his life in the final two weeks of the PGA Tour season, and it paid off Sunday with the biggest trophy of his career – a FedEx Cup title along with the US$18-million bonus.
Staked to a six-shot lead, Hovland didn’t flinch under a relentless challenge from Xander Schauffele. The 25-year-old Norwegian stayed on the attack and closed with a 7-under 63 for a five-shot victory at East Lake.
“It’s pretty surreal to be standing here right now,” Hovland said after receiving the silver FedEx Cup trophy. “I played basically my best golf the last two weeks and it couldn’t have happened at a better moment.”
Hovland capped off his best season with three victories. Even more staggering is the way he finished. He played his final two tournaments – the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields and the Tour Championship at East Lake – in 36-under par.
Schauffele made him work for that US$18-million, firing at flags from the opening hole. He got to within three shots with seven holes to play and had momentum on his side. And then Hovland ended the suspense with a 25-foot par putt on the 14th hole, and he put Schauffele away with a 10-foot birdie putt on the 16th.
Schauffele and Hovland put on a superb show. Playing in the last group, on a day that was delayed nearly two hours by thunderstorms, they had the best scores of the day. The next best score was a 65 from players who never had a chance at winning.
“I thought 62 would have let me get close to him,” Schauffele said. “He played unbelievably well. He made important putts and he’s just played like a champ.”
Hovland was the No. 2 seed going into the Tour Championship, meaning he started the tournament at 8-under par. Hovland posted a 19-under 261 – the same score as Schauffele, who started the tournament at 3 under as the No. 15 seed.
It was the second time in four years that no one scored better than Schauffele, and he left Atlanta without a trophy to show for it. Such is the nature of the FedEx Cup finale, and the importance of a strong season and a big performance in the two postseason events leading up to the Tour Championship.
“I’ll hold my head up high,” Schauffele said. “It was the most fun I had losing in quite some time. It’s such a weird feeling. I shot 62. I lost by five. Just kudos to Hovi. He played unbelievably well the last few weeks to get himself into this position and to really just put a cherry on top for himself and his team.”
Schauffele did everything he could. He was six shots behind when he left East Lake on Saturday evening, knowing that his only hope was to put as much pressure on Hovland as he could over the front nine.
Schauffele shot 30. Hovland nearly matched him birdie for birdie, posting a 31 that included a key 15-foot par save on No. 2 after the two-hour delay from thunderstorms that slightly softened the East Lake turf.
Schauffele, for all his California chill, was up for the fight no matter the odds.
He made an 18-foot birdie putt on the par-3 11th hole and followed with a 12-foot birdie on the 12th, cutting the lead to three shots with seven holes to play. It felt like the margin was even smaller considering how well Schauffele was playing, and Hovland having missed three birdie chances from 10 feet or closer early on the back nine.
The putt that mattered came at the 14th, the toughest hole at East Lake. Hovland came up short of the green, about 100 feet from the flag, and his pitch was weak and stopped just inside 25 feet from the hole.
He poured it in the heart and pumped his fist stronger than he had all day. The clincher was another pure short iron, this one to 10 feet on the 16th for birdie. At that point, the engraver went to work on the silver FedEx Cup trophy.
“When that putt went it, that was huge for momentum. Two shots with four holes to play is different than three shots, especially with 15 yet to play,” Hovland said, referring to the par-3 to a peninsula green. “After that, I just really relaxed.”
He closed with three straight birdies that only mattered for the margin of victory.
Now it’s a matter of how his peers judge his season. The PGA Tour player of the year was thought to be a two-man race between Masters champion Jon Rahm and his four wins and Scottie Scheffler with The Players Championship among his two wins and the No. 1 ranking from his remarkable consistency.
Hovland ended the season with wins at the Memorial and two FedEx Cup playoff events, including the one that mattered.
U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark won the B-Flight, closing with a 65 to finish third, 11 shots behind. That was worth a US$5-million bonus. Rory McIlroy had a 65 to finish fourth and collect US$4-million, while Patrick Cantlay (66) was alone in fifth to earn US$3-million.
The next time Hovland and Schauffele meet is for no prize money at all – the Ryder Cup in Rome in a month’s time.