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AVONDALE, La. – Growing up in Norway and as teammates at Oklahoma State University, Viktor Hovland and Kris Ventura figure they have played hundreds of rounds together. How about as a two-man team?
“Still a lot,” Ventura said.
That natural chemistry worked wonders on Thursday as they stormed home with nine birdies in their final 12 holes at TPC Louisiana to post a best-ball score of 10-under 132 in the first round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
“The mindset overall is just that we know each other pretty well and we’re comfortable around each other, so it was going to be a fun day no matter what,” Hovland said. “Obviously we played well today, but it’s always fun to play together, and we don’t get to do that very often in a tournament especially. It definitely brings back some memories to national teams in Norway and college golf, for sure.”
Ventura said he was 13 and Hovland 11 when they first met in Norway and became teammates on the country’s national golf team. Donnie Darr, who later became an assistant coach at Oklahoma State, was coaching at Ohio State and out of scholarship money to offer Ventura, so he advised Oklahoma State men’s coach Allan Bratton that there was a junior golfer from Norway he ought to check out. That was enough to convince Bratton to travel to watch Ventura compete in the European Boys team championship in Scotland. He ended up getting a two-for-one deal after discovering Hovland.
“I happened to play a singles match just right behind him,” Hovland said, “and that’s kind of when Coach Bratton became more familiar with the Norwegian team, and yeah, we just started a good kind of relationship.”
Bratton pegged Hovland a future prospect and signed him to a scholarship two years later. He would go on to win the 2018 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach and already has claimed two PGA Tour titles while rising to World No. 15. Ventura has lagged a bit behind, notching two Korn Ferry Tour victories in 11 starts but remains winless on the PGA Tour and currently ranks No. 248 in the world. Hovland understands just how hard it is to win at the highest level and is confident that Ventura’s time will come.
“From what I’ve seen the last couple days in Kris’s game, I’ve been really impressed. I mean, I know he’s capable of it. He has a lot of talent,” he said. “I think it’s just to kind of get more comfortable around here and just seeing more of what he did today, just to get that confidence and get the ball rolling, it won’t be too long I don’t think.”
On a windy opening day, Ventura and Hovland got off to an inauspicious start with just one birdie in their first six holes of the best-ball format. Then the birdies began to fall in bunches.
“Kris decided to heat up his putter,” Hovland said. “That really helped.”
Most of their birdies were from inside 10 feet, but Ventura drained back-to-bombs at Nos. 15 and 16, from 36 feet and 20 feet, respectively.
These old friends confirmed they are conversing in their native tongue between the ropes and Hovland noted that at one college tournament Ventura, who was born in Mexico, his father’s native country, but raised in Norway, his mother’s native country, rotated between three languages – Norwegian, English and Spanish – in writing his notes in his yardage book, using a different language every hole.
“I can’t imagine what’s going on in his head,” Hovland said.
It’s too early for Ventura to start thinking about winning his first PGA Tour title, but a birdie at the last by Hovland got the team to double-digits under par and a one-stroke lead over a handful of pursuers, including Billy Horschel and Sam Burns. For now, they are just enjoying the chance to add to their total number of rounds played together.
“We don’t get to play with each other very often, so this is certainly a treat,” Hovland said.
Brice Garnett and Scott Stallings also shared the lead after Thursday's round.