“Golf is easy when you’re playing with The Stud,” said Viktor Hovland at the end of his morning foursomes match, glancing up admiringly at his teammate. The Stud is Ludvig Aberg, the 23-year-old Swedish Ryder Cup rookie tipped to be the sport’s next big thing. He is tall and slender, with chiseled features, sunken eyes and a disarming smile. And Hovland is right: he makes golf seem easy.
Aberg has been a professional for only four months and has not yet played a major. He didn’t even make the top-four most recognisable faces in their foursomes match against America’s Max Homa and Brian Harman, with Novak Djokovic trailing them around Marco Simone Golf Club. But after an edgy start – “I was very nervous,” Aberg later admitted, and his legs turned to jelly “multiple times” – he soon settled into his Ryder Cup debut.
He sparked to life on the sixth green when he sank a 12-foot birdie putt to put the European pair two-up. The rowdy crowd let up a roar and Aberg simply raised a finger in the air before fishing out his ball. There was no smile, not yet; this was business.
Every bad shot counts in foursomes, in which teammates take alternate shots, but by now Aberg had stopped making any. His tee shots were flying 30 yards past Harman’s and he was routinely putting Hovland in prime position to attack the green. His best of the day was a drive on 14 which gently shaved off the dog-leg, carrying over a few trees and a bunker to land on a slender piece of fairway far beyond the Americans. Hovland wedged it close, Aberg drained the putt and they were four up with four to play, high-fiving euphoric fans all the way up the hill to the 15th tee.
Beside him, Norway’s Hovland was the perfect partner: wingman would be the wrong word – more like a proud older brother. Hovland applauded and fist-pumped and flexed his biceps to incite the home support as his teammate played. And when Aberg erred, as he did with his very first shot, Hovland was his salvation, holing out brilliantly with a chip on the opening hole to paint the first splash of blue on the scoreboard. “That was huge,” Hovland said. “We could have made bogey and gone one down, and it’s a different match.”
Pairings are so important in the Ryder Cup, in a sport where the players spend 51 weeks a year playing by themselves, for themselves. At the first tee, Homa arrived on his own a minute or so before Harman eventually joined him, and their synergy never improved much from there. Once their 4&3 defeat was confirmed on the 15th green, the Americans shared the briefest of handshakes and barely made eye contact.
By contrast, Hovland and Aberg bounced along the fairways, chatting away in their unique brand of Norswenglish. Norwegians and Swedes struggle to read each other’s language but they can understand each other pretty well. “Veldig bra,” said Hovland in his native tongue, complimenting Aberg’s piercing tee shot on the sixth hole. “Thank you,” came the reply in English.
At times Hovland resembled Action Man, with muscles spilling out of his tight shirt and fists constantly pumping; beside him Aberg looked like the mysterious star quarterback in a 90s high school movie, all high cheek-boned with a stony stare. His composure was unbreakable even in sweltering 30C heat: Tyrrell Hatton looked like he’d taken a shower after his round; Sepp Straka’s shirt had taken on liquid form; yet Aberg walked off the course like he’d just been taken out of the fridge.
Their winning moment came when Hovland chipped masterfully to secure Europe’s point, one quarter of a 4-0 morning whitewash, and deafening chants of “Europe! Europe!” rocked Marco Simone. “I can’t hear you,” joked Hovland, ears cupped, hype-man to the very end. Aberg beamed.
“Playing alongside one of the best players in the world in Viktor, it gives you a lot of comfort,” he said. “We kept our emotions intact and had a fun time on the golf course. It’s very easy to get distracted but the crowd really supported us. We felt the energy from every tee box you walked up to, every green, every fairway, you could feel the support, and that was something I’ll never forget.”
If Aberg is Europe’s future, Hovland is the now. He didn’t win a match on his Ryder Cup debut two years ago, but then this is a different Viktor Hovland now, a player who has transformed himself – his body, his putting and most spectacularly his touch around the greens – into one of the best players in the world. It would not be a surprise if Hovland emerges as Europe’s most important player this weekend, even in a team containing Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm.
Aberg first reached out to Hovland last summer, when still a college student in Texas, and they talked over FaceTime and later shared a dinner together. That relationship, combined with what Hovland describes as a shared Scandinavian culture, made them a likely coupling here, and suspicions were confirmed when Aberg let slip that they paired up to beat McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood during Europe’s scouting trip to Rome earlier this month.
There was no repeat performance in the afternoon: Aberg sat out the fourballs while Hovland headed back out on the course with Hatton. But you can bet the Scandi bromance will be rekindled on Saturday, probably in the foursomes again. The Ryder Cup needs a blossoming love story since the Fleetwood-Molinari ‘Moliwood’ pairing came to an end. Now it has one: Hovberg have only just begun.