ATLANTA (AP) — Viktor Hovland knew he was playing the best golf of his life. Staked to a six-shot lead Sunday in the Tour Championship, he figured a steady diet of fairways and greens and plenty of pars would be the safest route to winning the FedEx Cup.
Xander Schauffele made him change his plans.
And then the 25-year-old Norwegian star performed even better.
Hovland didn't flinch under a relentless challenge from Schauffele, matching birdies at East Lake from start to finish until he capped off the best two weeks of his career with his biggest trophy — a FedEx Cup title and the $18 million bonus.
He closed with a 7-under 63, the lowest score by the winner in Tour Championship history, and won the Tour Championship by five shots over Schauffele.
“The game plan was to try to play as boring as possible — play it like Tiger back in the day when he would post a 69 or 70 in a major championship and walk away with the victory,” Hovland said.
This was anything but boring golf — Hovland with a 63, Schauffele with a 62. A six-shot lead was cut to three shots on the back nine until Hovland poured in a 25-foot par putt on the 14th hole that made an already steep hill all but impossible for Schauffele to scale.
“What he was doing today was very special,” Hovland said. “It made this day more stressful than it should have been.”
So ended a season when Hovland won for the first time in the United States at the Memorial, had a multiple-win season, and then capped it off with two weeks of such sublime golf that he won the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields and the Tour Championship at 36-under par.
“It's pretty surreal to be standing here right now,” Hovland said after receiving the silver FedEx Cup trophy. “I played basically my best golf the last two weeks and it couldn't have happened at a better moment.”
Schauffele made him work for that $18 million, firing at flags from the opening hole. He got to within three shots with seven holes to play and had momentum on his side. And then Hovland ended the suspense with that 25-foot par putt on the 14th hole, and he put Schauffele away with a 10-foot birdie putt on the 16th.
Schauffele and Hovland put on a superb show. Playing in the final group, on a day that was delayed nearly two hours by thunderstorms, they had the best scores of the day. The next best score was a 65 from players who never had a chance at winning.
“I thought 62 would have let me get close to him,” Schauffele said. “He played unbelievably well. He made important putts and he’s just played like a champ.”
Nick Taylor of Abbotsford, B.C., finished 25th at 2 under, while Corey Conners of Listowel, Ont., was 26th at 1 under.
Hovland was the No. 2 seed going into the Tour Championship, meaning he started the tournament at 8-under par. Hovland posted a 19-under 261 — the same score as Schauffele, who started the tournament at 3 under as the No. 15 seed.
It was the second time in four years that no one scored better than Schauffele, and he left Atlanta without a trophy to show for it. Such is the nature of the FedEx Cup finale, and the importance of a strong season and a big performance in the two post-season events leading up to the Tour Championship.
“I’ll hold my head up high,” Schauffele said. “It was the most fun I had losing in quite some time. It’s such a weird feeling. I shot 62. I lost by five. Just kudos to Hovi. He played unbelievably well the last few weeks to get himself into this position and to really just put a cherry on top for himself and his team.”
Schauffele did everything he could. He was six shots behind when he left East Lake on Saturday evening, knowing that his only hope was to put as much pressure on Hovland as he could over the front nine.
Schauffele shot 30. Hovland nearly matched him birdie for birdie, posting a 31 that included a key 15-foot par save on No. 2 after the two-hour delay from thunderstorms that slightly softened the East Lake turf.
Schauffele, for all his California chill, was up for the fight no matter the odds.
He made an 18-foot birdie putt on the par-3 11th hole and followed with a 12-foot birdie on the 12th, cutting the lead to three shots with seven holes to play. It felt like the margin was even smaller considering how well Schauffele was playing, and Hovland having missed three birdie chances from 10 feet or closer early on the back nine.
The putt that mattered came at the 14th, the toughest hole at East Lake. Hovland came up short of the green, about 100 feet from the flag, and his pitch was weak and stopped just inside 25 feet from the hole.
He poured it in the heart and pumped his fist stronger than he had all day. The clincher was another pure short iron, this one to 10 feet on the 16th for birdie. At that point, the engraver went to work on the silver FedEx Cup trophy.
“When that putt went it, that was huge for momentum. Two shots with four holes to play is different than three shots, especially with 15 yet to play," Hovland said, referring to the par-3 to a peninsula green. “After that, I just really relaxed.”
He closed with three straight birdies that only mattered for the margin of victory.
Now it's a matter of how his peers judge his season. The PGA Tour player of the year was thought to be a two-man race between Masters champion Jon Rahm and his four wins and Scottie Scheffler with The Players Championship among his two wins and the No. 1 ranking from his remarkable consistency.
Hovland ended the season with wins at the Memorial and two FedEx Cup playoff events, including the one that mattered.
U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark won the B-Flight, closing with a 65 to finish third, 11 shots behind. That was worth a $5 million bonus. Rory McIlroy had a 65 to finish fourth and collect $4 million, while Patrick Cantlay (66) was alone in fifth to earn $3 million.
The next time Hovland and Schauffele meet is for no prize money at all — the Ryder Cup in Rome in a month's time.
AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf
Doug Ferguson, The Associated Press