Viktor Hovland proved untouchable at East Lake as the 25-year-old ran out a five-stroke winner at the FexExCup finale Tour Championship after lightning warnings once again halted proceedings in Atlanta.
Six clear after 54-holes, the Norwegian assassin looked infallible and so it proved, but not for the want of trying and second-placed Xander Schauffele threw every weapon in his arsenal into the cause only to find out that Hovland had a counter offensive for each and every one.
As Hovland’s nearest challenger, Schauffele joined him in the final pairing and the course specialist knew he’d need to pile on the pressure early and did so by stuffing one close at the first, but Hovland replied and holed his birdie putt first before the play-halting hooter sounded as they were approaching the second green.
A near two-hour delay followed, and when play resumed, the softened golf course was ripe for the picking and no group better encapsulated this than the final one who went toe to toe in incredible fashion with Schauffele birdieing five of the opening nine but only able to reduce the deficit by one.
The chaser then reeled off back-to-back birdies on 11 and 12 to pull within three and it looked as though the affable Norwegian could be starting to buckle under the strain of expectation, particularly when an average chip at the 14th left him 23 feet for par to retain that three-stroke advantage.
If nerves were present, they weren’t showing, however, and he rolled it in to keep Schauffele at arm’s reach and then closed it out with three birdies in succession to win his second tournament in succession and take the $18 million prize, though he claims the money wasn’t a motivating factor.
“Obviously it’s a lot of cash you’re playing for,” he conceded. “I mean, it’s in the back of your mind. But I live in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Money goes a long ways there. It’s not like I’m spending money out the wazoo every week. I don’t need a lot to be happy. I don’t need a lot to live within my means.
“So obviously it’s nice for my family to have that protection and my, you know, eventual kids, that I’ll have in the future. It’s nice to have that, but it’s not something that drives me, it’s not something that gives me meaning. I find meaning in other places. But obviously with how society works, money is something you need.”
Schauffele began the week five strokes behind Hovland in the staggered start format, and the coup de grace was the seven-footer on the last which also tied Schauffele’s 72-hole and sealed a five-shot victory.
Afterwards, Hovland explained that his game plan had been to take a ‘no-risks’ approach to the final round and play ‘boring’ golf.
“Yeah, the game plan kind of — as I was talking to Joe, my instructor, the game plan was trying to play as boring as possible,” he said. “just trying to play like Tiger back in the day when he would post the 69 or a 70 in a major championship and walk away with a victory.
“Obviously it was sweet to make a birdie on the first hole and make a really clutch par save on No. two. After that, I felt really in control of my game. But even being — I think I was four-under through six, and even then Xander just kept pouring it on and suddenly after I missed those couple of short birdie putts on the back nine, early on the back nine, suddenly the lead was at three, and if I miss that putt on 14, it’s suddenly two.
“So what he was doing today was very special. Certainly it made this day a lot more stressful than I felt like it should have been after that start.”
Hovland becomes the fourth European to win the FedExCup title and second Scandinavian after Swede Henrik Stenson’s success back in 2013 and he now climbs to fourth in the world rankings, marking the first time since 2012 that three of the top four-ranked players in the world were European.
Rory McIlroy, whose defence of the FedExCup title he claimed in dramatic fashion by overhauling Scottie Scheffler on the final day in last year’s staging was severely hampered by a muscular back issue, saved his best for last and closed with a five-under 65 to take solo fourth and earn $4,000,000 in prize money.
“Yeah. Hung in there the first couple days when I really wasn’t feeling great,” McIlroy tole the media after his round. “Then quite a bit of improvement yesterday. Then felt I could actually tee the driver up a bit today and hit a couple of tee shots in the air. Felt like I could cover the ball more with my irons. So, just excited that I’m feeling better. So that’s good, going into the next few weeks, and nice to sign off with a good score.”