How a chance meeting at the Masters propelled Ping to sign Viktor Hovland
Viktor Hovland became a Ping Golf staffer on Wednesday at the Travelers Championship. The multi-year agreement will see the Oklahoma State sophomore play a minimum of 11 Ping clubs (putter and driver included), sport the brand’s logo on the front of his hat and use one of their staff bags.
Those are the facts. What won’t show up in the press release is how the deal came about.
Prior to the 2019 Masters, the chances of Hovland and Ping coming together on a deal were slim. In the throes of evaluating talent and pinpointing who amongst the current crop of soon-to-be professionals warranted a staff contract, Chance Cozby, Ping’s vice president of sports development, mentioned Hovland’s name during a meeting with chairman and CEO, John A. Solheim, along with his son John K. Solheim, but it was only because he believed the talent was for real. It also had something to do with the fact Hovland was Norwegian — the same nationality as company founder Karsten Solheim.
As the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and arguably the best collegiate player on the planet, Hovland was the name every equipment manufacturer coveted. Ping’s long-standing relationship with Oklahoma State University, which dates back to the 1970s, seemed to give the brand an edge on paper, but Cozby never fully pursued Hovland.
“The last few years it’s just been a friendly relationship [with Viktor] — but really nothing beyond that,” Cozby said. “I told John and John K. [Solheim] that he was from Norway and could be a good fit, but he was outside the mold of our typical strategy.”
Ping has historically signed players coming out of school that have brand loyalty — i.e. those who’ve played Ping clubs on a regular basis — but outside of a brief run with the company’s iBlade irons for a few months his freshman year, Hovland was attached to TaylorMade during his sophomore year.
In other words, he didn’t exactly fit the “typical strategy.”
Then along came a chance meeting at the Masters to flip the script. During a lunch meeting on Augusta National’s famed clubhouse terrace, Cozby, Solheim and Christian Pena, Ping’s Tour operations manager, were greeted by a surprise visitor who just wanted to stop by and say hello.
It was Viktor Hovland and Oklahoma State head coach Alan Bratton, on their way to the first tee for a practice round. Even in the midst of tournament preparation, Hovland took a few minutes to chat with the Ping contingent. The conversation left an indelible mark on Solheim in particular.
“I remember we spent part of the lunch talking about Viktor after he’d left,” Cozby said. “John was very interested. He thought Viktor was a good fit for our brand and wanted us to start the process to see if there was anything there.”
It didn’t take Cozby long to realize the two sides were a good fit. During a four-hour testing session with Hovland in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Cozby and Scott Sullivan, Ping’s senior player development manager, walked Hovland through the company’s entire product line and were blown by how locked-in the 21-year-old was for the entire session.
“He’s one of the most impressive players we’ve ever worked with from a pure consistency standpoint,” Cozby said. “We tested for four hours that day and I’d say he was engaged in the process the entire time and intrigued with what we had to offer. By the time our four hours were up, our product had performed. That set us on a course that Ping was a viable option.”
Until a few years ago, the thought of signing a non-Ping amateur to the company’s Tour staff was almost unheard of before Tony Finau came along. The former Nike equipment staffer hadn’t touched a Ping club until his deal with the Swoosh dissolved at the end of 2016.
But over the next year, Finau began adding Ping equipment to his bag while continuing to play without a contract. As Ping started to take notice of Finau and the gear he had in the bag, the two sides started a dialog that eventually became a full-blow club deal in 2018. What made the deal unique was it didn’t include front of hat (which belonged to Nike), something that had been a must for years.
“[Tony’s deal] kind of opened our eyes to the fact that we’re going to continue using the strategy that’s paid off for us over time,” Cozby said, “but we’re also going to take advantage of opportunities in front of us that we see and feel are a good fit. Tony is a perfect example of that. We feel the same way about Viktor. We’ve had a very successful run on Tour doing things a certain way over the years. But when the opportunity is right, I think it can pay off.”
More than a year later, Finau is one of Ping’s most popular staffers and has solidified himself as a key cornerstone for the future.
Ping is hoping for the same from Hovland, who officially put Ping’s G410 LST driver and a split set of iBlade (4-6) and i210 irons (7-PW) in the bag at the U.S. Open. What many don’t know is both were last-minute additions to the bag, with Hovland waiting until late Wednesday afternoon to make a decision on his final setup.
“The driver was a bonus,” Cozby said. “By Wednesday midday, it looked like he was not going to play our driver. But some last-minute tweaks made him feel like it was worth putting in play at Pebble. But that was literally his first week hitting the driver in competition.
“I think coach Bratton was a little nervous. Not to mention, he added the i210 short irons on Wednesday morning. Personally, I was maybe with coach Bratton in being nervous that he was making the changes. We didn’t push for him to put them in play, but he’s his own boss and makes his own decisions. I think the results speak for themselves.”
Hovland would go on to finish T12 with his new Ping equipment en route to the lowest 72-hole score by an amateur in U.S. Open history. He also ranked first in strokes gained: off-the-tee, picking up 8.4 shots on the field over four days.
What made the finish even sweeter for Ping was knowing Hovland was already a done deal at that point. Even more important for Cozby was knowing Hovland would soon be under contract with one of Ping’s standard staff deals that included 11 clubs (minimum) but the hat and staff bag as well.
“That was important on our end,” Cozby said of the Hovland deal. “We did the [Cameron] Champ and [Tony] Finau deals with Nike. There’s also the Joaquín Niemann deal with Ping and Adidas. We felt like with a guy like Viktor, we needed to make a statement and put a deal in front of him that included the hat.
They were in full support of that. We go into every detail as Plan A is Ping hat. We don’t move to Plan B unless the situation kind of creates itself.”
With Hovland now officially under contract, Cozby and his team have set their sights on ensuring the Norwegian has the best possible setup to earn status on the PGA Tour for the 2019-20 season. While Hovland chose to put Ping’s driver and irons in the bag, Cozby made it clear there’s no pressure from the OEM side to adjust his setup over the next few months.
“We’re not putting a timeline on [equipment changes],” he said. “The relationship is already good. We’re gonna work with him as both parties wanna do it. But the most important thing right now is the next five PGA Tour events for Viktor. He has the freedom to play what makes him comfortable on the course. Whatever his goals are, we want to help him achieve them.”
Based on how Hovland played with new Ping gear at Pebble Beach, he’s on the right track.
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