Viktor Hovland’s secret weapon is another pro

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Whether Viktor Hovland, who enters the final round trailing by one stroke, wins the Wanamaker Trophy or not this week at the 105th PGA Championship at Oak Hill is still to be determined, but if he does so it may be due to his secret weapon: Edoardo Molinari.

That would be the older brother of British Open champion Francesco Molinari, a former U.S. Amateur champion, three-time DP World Tour champion and European Ryder Cupper, who is serving as an assistant captain later this year in his native Italy.

Molinari also is an engineer by trade and his keen use of stats made him a trailblazer in the use of data analytics in golf. It also has led to the creation of a business that is helping some of the game’s top players learn their strengths and weaknesses, strategy and course management and how to practice more effectively. Among his students who rely on his advanced data analytics are reigning U.S. Open winner Matt Fitzpatrick, Thomas Pieters and Hovland.

“Viktor’s potential is limitless,” Molinari said. “He’s very keen on the course management. I have regular conversations with Shay (Knight), his caddie, even on the day of the round. Viktor is a super-smart kid and he understands what he wants. Sometimes he’ll ask you a very specific question and then go away and work for a month and then can see the data changing and getting better.”

Edoardo Molinari Trophee Hassan II

Edoardo Molinari of Italy celebrates following his win at the 2019 Trophee Hassan II at Royal Golf Dar Es Salam in Rabat, Morocco. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

“I think Viktor realized that his course management was a weakness,” Molinari said. “His ballstriking is probably top 3 on Tour, especially when he’s playing well. He doesn’t miss a shot. It’s more like managing his few misses a little better sometimes playing a bit more aggressive off the tee because when he’s on he doesn’t really miss a fairway.”

Hovland, 25, won the 2018 U.S. Amateur, three times on the PGA Tour, played on Europe’s Ryder Cup team in 2021 and entered the week ranked 11th in the world. At the last two majors, the Norewegian held the 54-hole lead at the British Open and played in the second-to-last group at the Masters in April, but faded from the picture.

When asked to explain why he hadn’t had more success at the majors yet, Hovland explained, “I think that’s been because I’ve just been a little bit young and stupid, just going after some pins that I’m not supposed to go for even though I’m feeling good about my ball-striking and it’s easy to just feel like, yeah, I’m going to take it right at it and make a birdie here. Then you hit a decent shot, and then you’re short-sided and make bogey or double, and you just can’t do that in major championship golf. You just have to wear out center of the green.”

Hovland, who also began working with swing instructor Joe Mayo this year, compared his new-found focus on course management to the game of poker and placing smart bets depending on the hand he’s dealt.

“Within strategy in poker, there’s certain frequencies, certain things should happen, so you bet at certain frequencies. Basically I was ending up plugged in the bunker short-sided a few more times than you would think,” he explained. “It seemed like it would happen once or twice a round or something like that where I would just be in a terrible spot and cannot make a par. So (Mayo) reached out to Edoardo, and we crunched some numbers and saw that I was just a little too aggressive with my shorter irons.”

Fitzpatrick was the first player to seek assistance from Molinari and still remains the player who is most devoted to Molinari’s data analytics approach. But his number of disciples is growing by leaps and bounds through word of mouth.

“I thought some players might come to ask for it. I thought the maximum number of players I could manage was 10 players. I thought in 3-4 years if I had 10 players, I’d be happy. Within 3 months, we had 10 players signed up. I had to hire a guy part-time, hired another guy. Both are full-time now,” Molinari said. “We have 10 (clients) on the PGA Tour and another 20 on the DP World Tour, a couple of Champions tour and LPGA.”

South African pro Brandon Stone isn’t currently working with Molinari but he may have summed up best why so many players are knocking on the door of ‘The Stat Man’ and asking for help.

“You’re always looking for that 1 percent you can gain on everyone else,” Stone said. “(When I worked) with Eddie, I gained closer to 5 percent.”

Initially, Molinari’s company, Statistic Golf, provided only stats but he has since added course management and how to practice more effectively (Molinari isn’t the only skilled player to enter this burgeoning cottage industry; Golfweek chronicled the story of Hunter Stewart last year).

Fitzpatrick won the U.S. Open in June; one can only imagine what a second major in less than a year for one of Molinari’s clients would do for his business. Asked last month if Hovland’s game suited a particular major, Molinari said the U.S. Open or PGA Championship.

“It needs to be very difficult off the tee to serve him best. He’s one of the best drivers of the ball. If there is a weakness in his game, it is chipping from tight lies. But there’s a lot of grass around the green at those majors so it’s less of an issue,” he explained.

Hovland, who shot even-par 70 at Oak Hill on Saturday, will play in the final group on Sunday alongside leader Brooks Koepka. Hovland’s best result this season is a T-3 at the Players Championship in March and his last win was at the Hero World Challenge for the second straight year in the Bahamas in December. In fact, all of his Tour wins have been on tropical islands: in Puerto Rico and twice in Mexico near the resort town of Cancun. It’s ironic given he grew up in the cold of Norway.

“Sometimes I tease him that it’s about time he wins on a serious golf course, not at a tourist place,” Molinari said.

This slice of Western New York, where there was a frost delay on Thursday, has never been confused for a tropical locale and Oak Hill would most certainly qualify as “a serious golf course.”

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