Viktor Hovland finally bagged a PGA Tour win at one of the biggest events this season. And then some.
Hovland has won in each of the last four seasons on Tour, but fellow pro Edoardo Molinari, who doubles as Hovland’s performance coach, noted that his previous wins shared something in common.
Indeed, all of his Tour wins before 2023 had been on tropical islands: in Puerto Rico and twice in Mexico near Cancun, plus two more unofficial titles in The Bahamas. It’s ironic given that Hovland 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.
Muirfield Village Golf Club, the course Jack Nicklaus built near his childhood home in Dublin, Ohio, and annual host of the Memorial, certainly qualifies as “a serious course.” As does Olympia Fields, a former major championship site near Chicago where Hovland shot a final-round 61 to win the BMW Championship in August. The same goes for East Lake in Atlanta, where Hovland ran away with the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup Playoffs title, his second win in two weeks.
Edoardo Molinari, left, and Viktor Hovland, right, discuss a shot during a practice round before the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego. (Harry How/Getty Images)
What made the Memorial victory special for Hovland was the way he won: without his best stuff from tee to green but with a short game that has made great strides and a putter that continually bailed him out.
He also credited his improved course management. Two years ago he played a practice round at the U.S. Open with Molinari, the brother of 2018 British Open winner Francesco, and a week later Hovland implemented some of Edoardo’s tips at the DP World Tour’s BMW International in Germany and won the tournament.
“I was impressed with the way his mind worked,” said Hovland, who in a separate interview described him as “a genius when it comes to the stats.”
Hovland hired Molinari, 42, to help with his strategy, and it has paid big dividends. Speaking ahead of his victory at Jack’s Place, Hovland noted that Molinari crunched his numbers and discovered that when Hovland attacked greens with pitching wedge and 8-iron, he was short-siding himself 30 percent of the time, above the Tour average of 20 percent.
“Because I’m a good iron player, it should be closer to 15 percent of the time if not less than that,” Hovland said. “I was putting too much pressure on my short game by being too aggressive.”
Edoardo Molinari, left, and Viktor Hovland, right, wait to play during the 2022 DS Automobiles Italian Open at Marco Simone Golf Club in Rome. (Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
“It would be kind of a double whammy,” Hovland said at his winner’s press conference in June. “But this week I told myself that when I’m out of position, just play for the fatter part of the green and if I miss the green, I still have a shot where I can roll the ball up or slow the ball down enough to get it close to the pin.”
Imagine what Molinari can do for the other 11 players who, along with Hovland, will make up Team Europe at the Ryder Cup in Molinari’s native Italy.
Molinari, a former U.S. Amateur champion, three-time DP World Tour champion and European Ryder Cupper in 2010, is serving as a vice captain. An engineer by trade, Molinari’s keen use of stats has 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. In addition to Hovland, the growing stable of students who rely on his data analytics include 2022 U.S. Open winner Matt Fitzpatrick and Thomas Pieters.
“He pops open his laptop after he plays and he’s got these Excel spreadsheets, and he works on it for hours and hours in the evening,” Pieters said of Molinari. “By the time he’s done, he’s identified everything I should work on whether it is 6- to 8-foot right-to-left putts or a certain yardage that I can improve in getting up-and-down with my wedges.”
When Sweden’s Henrik Stenson originally was named Europe’s captain last March, he called Molinari a week later and asked him how he would use data to analyze all the possibilities for making picks and pairings, then determining the best course setup. Stenson hired Molinari to handle those duties, replacing 21 Club, which specializes in sports intelligence and had been responsible for data analytics at the last three Ryder Cups for the European side. A month later they had discussions about the qualifying criteria, and Stenson asked Molinari to serve as one of his assistant captains.
European Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald and Edoardo Molinari celebrate a putt at the 2023 Zurich Classic of New Orleans. (Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports)
But Stenson was stripped of his captaincy after he joined LIV Golf. When Donald was named as Stenson’s replacement in August 2022, he called Molinari the next day. Donald recounted how he had been shown what Molinari already had done for Stenson and was duly impressed. Donald asked Molinari to continue in that role.
In January, Molinari test-drove his methods at the Hero Cup in Dubai, a competition with one team representing Great Britain and Ireland and the other representing Continental Europe. He experimented with pairings and live stats.
“Some of the past (Ryder Cup) captains came to me and said this is so fantastic, this is going to be so helpful,” Molinari said.
Statistics have come a long way since Donald played on his first Ryder Cup in 2004, and it’s no surprise the former Northwestern golfer has made such math an important ingredient in his decision-making process. He was the first pro to ask Mark Broadie, a teacher at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University since 1983 and the godfather of Strokes Gained – which allow a golfer to more effectively understand where he gained or lost ground on the leaderboard – for personalized evaluations of his performance stats. Shortly after Donald wrapped up the 2011 PGA Tour money title and reached World No. 1, he sent a thank-you note and a half-case of his signature-label red wine to Broadie.
Even before Broadie’s innovation, Molinari had tracked more traditional stats: fairways hit, greens in regulation, number of putts. Every year he’d crunch the numbers of some new category. When he heard of Broadie’s breakthrough, he sent him a blind e-mail asking if they could meet. They spent a few days in Orlando playing golf while Broadie trained Molinari on the ins and outs of Strokes Gained.
“I remember him saying he wasn’t sure the players or the public was going to like it, and I said, ‘Mark, this is revolutionary. You need to publish the whole thing.’ It changed the world of golf and data,” Molinari said.
Fitzpatrick was the first player to seek assistance from Molinari and still the player who is most devoted to Molinari’s data analytics approach. But Molinari’s 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 three to four years if I had 10 players, I’d be happy,” Molinari said. “Within three months, we had 10 players signed up. I had to hire a guy part-time, hired another guy. Both are full-time now.”
During COVID-19, Molinari had time to rebuild his platform to track on-course performance, making it easier to enter data and manage players.
“We have 10 (clients) on the PGA Tour and another 20 on the DP World Tour, a couple of Champions Tour and LPGA,” Molinari said.
For the Ryder Cup, Molinari may be Europe’s secret weapon as it tries to extend its winning streak on home soil, which extends six matches and dates to 1993. Donald is fully on board that data analytics can give his team an edge.
“It’s a good way to judge how we should be setting up the golf course, it’s a good way to look at potential pairings, the strengths needed for Marco Simone,” Donald said. “(Molinari) has great expertise in this world. It’s invaluable, really.”
Just as it has been for Hovland in his rise to a top-5 player in the world. He compares his new-found focus on course management to the game of poker and placing smart bets depending on the hand he’s dealt.
“Anytime you can tilt math to your advantage, that can be huge,” Hovland said. “If you play blackjack, you’re going to lose to the house in the long run. But if you can count cards and make it profitable in the long run, why wouldn’t you?”
With Molinari’s help, Team Europe hopes to come up aces again.