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Eamon Lynch: After studying Ryder Cup teammates on YouTube, rookie Viktor Hovland hints at Rory McIlroy pairing

USA TODAY Sports Media Group
USA TODAY Sports Media Group
 2021-09-21
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Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

HAVEN, Wis. — It’s a sign of the vast experience Europe brings to Whistling Straits that the first Ryder Cup Viktor Hovland can recall watching on television was the eighth one Lee Westwood played, Westwood having made his debut in the event when Hovland was just eight days old.

The Norwegian rookie turned 24 last weekend. He was 15 when he watched Europe’s memorable comeback just 130 miles south of here in 2012. “The first Ryder Cup that I actually sat down and watched to the end essentially was at Medinah. I wasn’t too young, but I remember a lot of those final putts coming down the stretch very vividly,” he said. “I was sitting there watching with my dad, and I remember just going nuts.”

For more perspective: Medinah was the sixth team appearance for Sergio Garcia and the fourth for Ian Poulter, now respectively on their tenth and seventh squads. Westwood is making his eleventh start as the Old World attempts to retain the Cup and notch its 10th win in the last 13 stagings. Theirs is a long, successful history that Hovland has been studying in the most modern way possible: YouTube.

“Obviously time and time again when they show up to this week, they deliver every single time. I sat a couple weeks ago and just watched highlights of Poults and Sergio and Westy on YouTube in the Ryder Cup,” he said. “It was just so cool to see all the clutch moments they’ve had and just kind of how they handled everything, because it’s a big pressure. Just to see how they go about their business and handle all that.”

This week in Wisconsin, Hovland gets up close to that living history. “It’s cool to be behind the scenes with them when there’s no cameras and they’re not playing golf to see why they’ve been able to do all those things,” he said with a palpable sense of awe.

On Tuesday morning, Hovland was part of a practice foursome with Westwood, Garcia and Rory McIlroy, a pod that might hint at European captain Padraig Harrington’s intentions come the first session on Friday morning. Westwood and Garcia have been a formidable Ryder Cup partnership going back almost 20 years, which leaves the tantalizing prospect of a Hovland-McIlroy pairing.

“I think we’ve got a lot of the same strengths and kind of personality-wise we think a lot alike,” Hovland said of the prospect. Still, he remained coy on whether it will happen.

“As we all do, we say who we want to play with, and then we just kind of use these days to figure out, OK, is this a good fit or not, do we work together, and then we kind of go from there. Other than that, I don’t really know,” he said.

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Members of the European Ryder Cup team react during a team photo prior to the 43rd Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits on September 21, 2021 in Kohler, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Last week, Harrington said some guys will tell him who they might best fit with — or not — but that he had 11 guys who wanted to play with Hovland, remarkable testament to the amiable reputation he enjoys. A partnership with McIlroy would be one Hovland has long sought. Several years ago, he asked McIlroy if they could partner at the Zurich Classic, the PGA Tour’s only team event. McIlroy said he’d be game to play together but the event wasn’t on his schedule. The pair seem of similar easy-going dispositions (Hovland’s perma-grin has even seen him jokingly referred to as ‘Stoned Rory’).

McIlroy said Tuesday he would welcome the chance to guide Hovland through the cauldron of his first Ryder Cup match. “The thing that I’d say to any rookie is the reason you’re on this team is because of the golf that got you here. For Viktor, I’d just tell him to be himself,” McIlroy said. “He’s one of the best players in the world. He’s already been a wonderful teammate, and the energy and enthusiasm that he brings into our team.”

Being part of that team involves a gentle hazing, something the world No. 14 has not been spared. The team group chat began last week, and Hovland has come in for some good-natured ribbing. But what softens him up in the team room is also designed to shore him up for what happens on the course, the camaraderie acting as armor against a gallery heavily tipped toward U.S. fans.

“I’d like to think I have some fans out there that maybe won’t necessarily boo against us, but if they do end up doing that, that’s what they’re going to do,” Hovland said. “We’re still going to play golf, and if they do end up doing that, that means we’re doing something good. I’m not going to take anything too personally. I can take a punch to the face. I’ve definitely gotten my beating so far in the group text. I think I’m prepared for some yells here and there.”

The group chat beating was genteel, with some unflattering old photos circulated for fun, which helps ensure the youngest rookie is drawn closer to the heart of a veteran team. “It’s all good banter,” Hovland said. “And again, just bringing us closer together.”

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