Any time someone asks me for advice on getting into golf analytics, I offer the same response: find a player with an extreme skill set and figure out where he succeeds and where he struggles. Then, most importantly, figure out why.
Viktor Hovland is an excellent example of a player with an extreme skill set. Viktor is an elite driver of the golf ball with phenomenal iron play. He is also an affable, intelligent mind dedicated to finding edges. His Achilles heel is his short game. Of the top 10 ranked players by OWGR in the PGA Championship field, only Hovland has a negative Strokes Gained: Around the Green number. He has registered negative SG:ARG in all five seasons he has played on the PGA Tour.
When thinking about the value of short game, it’s important to think not just about how often a player will miss the green but instead how often a player should miss the green. Ok, obviously a player should never intentionally miss the green. But on certain holes, missing the green is much more within the range of optimal outcomes.
My favorite example of this concept is Hole 16 at TPC Sawgrass.
An accurate drive leaves a long-iron approach into a green guarded by water on the right side. Strategically-advanced players like Hovland understand that although taking an aggressive line at the flag can be tempting, that line brings water into play too often for aggression to be optimal. He leverages his dispersion pattern, as opposed to believing he can execute every shot to perfection.
Over the last few years, nearly all of Viktor’s approach shots into Hole 16 look similar to this one:
He targets the left side of the green, protecting himself against penalties when he pushes the approach shot, while introducing a bunch of delicate chip shots into his range of outcomes.
In the 2023 Players Championship, Hovland finished T3 with negative SG: ARG. That result reminds me of another Hovland finish on a golf course with water and delicate chip shots from tight runoff areas: Hovland finishes T-2 at the 2021 WGC-Workday at Concession despite losing a half of a stroke per round around the greens.
His accuracy off the tee prevents him from incurring many steep penalties, yet his short game struggles prevent him from collecting more trophies than he currently has to his name. Accordingly, two of his seven worldwide wins have come at El Camaleon Golf Course at Mayakoba, a hardcore accuracy test that is not the most challenging golf course around the green.
When I consider the state of Hovland’s game, I think about two shots from his second round at the 2023 Masters:
- An absolutely brilliant iron over a tree into a back left pin in choppy conditions on the 17th hole
- A subpar chip from a tricky location on the par-5 2nd hole
Statistically, Hovland profiles similarly to Billy Horschel, another data-driven player with impressive driving accuracy and short game deficiency. To be clear, Hovland is a much better player than Horschel. He’s been ranked as high as No. 3 in the world, while Horschel has not cracked the top 10. Hovland had legitimate chances of winning the last two majors he played, the 2022 Open Championship and the 2023 Masters. He’s only 25 years old and has plenty of time to realize his full potential.
Still, Horschel is a reasonable comparison. Billy has had a solid career, especially in PGA Tour events. In major championships, though, Horschel has just one top 10 in 37 starts. To avoid posting a similar major championship track record to Horschel’s, Viktor will need to tidy his short game. Otherwise, he’ll end up with a bunch of results outside the top 10.
Oak Hill, site of this week’s PGA Championship, presents a decent setup for Hovland. His accuracy off the tee will not benefit him like it does at other golf courses like Muirfield Village, where Horschel won last year. However, the long rough around the greens shields Viktor from a shot that has challenged him, delicate chips off a tight lie. If his ball striking shows up, as it usually does, and if his short game woes flare up, as they usually do, he could very well find himself between T-10 and T-30.
I am eager to watch Hovland attack Oak Hill this week. I expect him to be aggressive off the tee, like he should be, and he has the iron game and mental fortitude to vault himself into contention. But both this week and into the future, Viktor can go as far as his short game takes him.