By Andrew Both
(Reuters) – It speaks to Viktor Hovland’s youth that his first vivid memory of watching the Masters was as recently as 2013, when Adam Scott became the first Australian to win a Green Jacket.
Six years later, the 21-year-old Hovland will be a trailblazer for his country when he becomes the first player from Norway to compete at Augusta National.
He will tee up on Thursday as part of a six-strong amateur contingent that also includes Ernie Els’ nephew South African Jovan Rebula, the British Amateur champion.
Hovland earned a trip to this year’s Masters — and the U.S. and British Open events — by winning the U.S. Amateur championship in dominant fashion at Pebble Beach last year.
He tied the record for the fewest match play holes needed by a champion since the event went to its current format in 1979, and closed out in style with a 6&5 victory in the final.
Hovland is not planning simply to make up the numbers at Augusta, his lofty ambitions fortified by his decent showing against the pros at last month’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he tied for 40th.
“Frankly, I didn’t feel like I played that well, yet I was able to finish 40th with a game that was average, or below average,” he said in a telephone interview with Reuters.
“It definitely gave me some confidence I can hang (with the pros but) you still need to play well.”
Hovland comes from a nation whose men’s golf history is almost non-existent.
While Scandinavian neighbour Sweden has had a production line churning out world class players for the past three decades, the pickings from Norway have been slim, apart from Suzann Pettersen, a 15-times winner on the LPGA Tour.
Hovland might never have played golf if not for an American family connection. His father Harald, an engineer, took up the game while living in the United States and passed on his love of the sport to his son.
“He lived in St. Louis for one year,” said Hovland, a member of the golf team at Oklahoma State University.
By age 11, Hovland was hooked. He decided he wanted to play the game all year round, even if it meant spending the winter at an indoor driving range.
“You can’t play outside (in Norway) for a big chunk of the year (and until then) I would always take a hiatus during those months,” he said.
“I really wasn’t all that good a junior golfer. I had potential but I was never the star growing up. I never really won anything.”
He nevertheless was good enough to play in the European Boys’ Championship, where he came to the attention of American collegiate scouts, which is how he ended up at Oklahoma State.
Hovland makes no secret of his plan to turn pro sooner rather than later, perhaps as early as this summer.
The Norwegian is a man in a hurry but at the same time he knows from conversations with the likes of Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson that a golfer’s body of work is measured over decades rather than months.
“They say this is a game you can do for a long time,” he said. “Even though I’m in a spot where I’ve got a lot of opportunities, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Ken Ferris)