Viktor Hovland, ‘Ace’ Ventura grab share of Zurich Classic first round lead: Can they last the pace?

There was a time when Norwegian golf pretty much started and ended with Suzann Pettersen.

If a nation's options are to be limited, that's obviously a very long way from being anything like bad news.

'Tutta' was a two-time Major Champion and Europe's Boudica of the Solheim Cup, blond hair sprayed behind her as she led her people to glorious victory in furious style.

The country's golf had a dilemma that neatly reversed the one most others face: it had a superstar in the women's game and was making no impression in the men's.

And, then, in one of those bizarre coincidences sport often throws up, no sooner did Pettersen retire than Viktor Hovland emerge.

Now two years into his professional career, the 23-year-old is already a two-time PGA Tour winner, ranked 15th in the world, and on track to make his Ryder Cup debut in September.

But on day one at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans at TPC Louisiana, he also gave a boost to the career of his partner for the week, and compatriot, Kristoffer Ventura.

In so many ways it was merely natural progression.

The pair have played junior golf and national amateur golf together.

They then both played at Oklahoma State and also both represented Europe in the Palmer Cup, the college version of the Ryder Cup.

Little wonder that when asked how much they have played together, the pair not only revealed the extent of that action, but did so in a manner that suggests they're used to ham-and-egging it:

Question: How many rounds do you think you guy have played?

Ventura: It's a lot.

Hovland: A couple hundred probably.

Ventura: Yeah, it's a lot.

Ventura is no mug. He's a two-time Korn Ferry Tour winner who opened the 2020/21 season with two early top-10 finishes, but he hasn't made a top 30 since then.

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A week with his old friend might be just what he needs to clear the fog.

In round one they made a slow start, just 1-under through six, but then flew home on a wet sail, failing to birdie only three of the remaining holes to card 10-under 62.

They share top spot with Brice Garnet and Scott Stallings, with seven pairings one shot behind them, including the Aussies Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman, the South Africans Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, and the smooth-swinging, big-hitting Americans Tony Finau and Cameron Champ.

Let's take an assessment of the state of play after 18 holes and then conclude with the best of the Hovland-Ventura quotes - is Norway set for an ace weekend or will the pack gobble them up?

State of play

Friday's golf will be crucial for two reason.

The first is obvious - the cut will be made: the top 35 teams and ties.

The second relates to the second round format of foursomes (or alternate shot). As we know from the Ryder Cup, the dynamic is very different from Thursday's fourballs: the bad shots can't be hidden; the relationship is tested.

What do we know of past editions of the event? First up, every team that has won or got to a playoff has gone sub-66 in the first round of fourballs.

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If that pattern repeats this week, it leaves only those T16th or better in with a chance.

Secondly, with the exception of the year Billy Horschel and Scott Piercy won, when the weather was very difficult in the first round of foursomes, those past winners and playoff losers have never needed more than 70 blows in any foursomes lap.

A third factor might be the blustery breeze which had an effect on Thursday, but only in a fun sense rather than disruptive one. It will be gusty on Saturday, less so on Friday, but it might have more of an impact with just one ball in play.

The bookies rate the Norwegians a best price of 11/1 at Boylesport, but they continue to prefer the chances of the pre-event favourites.

Smith and Leishman are 13/2 with Paddy Power, won't be afraid of the wind, and are smack in the hunt, just one back.

Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay are only two adrift on 8-under and 7/1 with the same firm.

Defending champions Jon Rahm and Ryan Palmer are still in it, T16th on 7-under, and 9/1 at Paddy Power.

Finau and Champ, like the Aussies just one back, are available at 10/1 with Boylesport.

Now let's see that Hovland and Ventura had to say.

Hovland on the chemistry

"We know each other pretty well and we're comfortable around each other, so it was going to be a fun day no matter what. Obviously we played well today, but it's always fun to play together, and we don't get to do that very often in a tournament especially.

"It definitely brings back some memories to national teams in Norway and college golf for sure."

Hovland on the round and the course

"We basically had two birdie chances on every single hole and, towards the middle to back end of the round, Kris's putter heated up. It was cool to watch. We just played really solid golf. It's an awesome golf course, and when it blows like this, it's a lot of fun to play."

Ventura on Hovland

"It's been fun to see the good play that he's had in the last year, year and a half. Obviously motivating, just more motivation to play better and practice harder, and today was fun, and I think my mindset into this week was we're going to have fun no matter what. We don't get to play with each other very often, so this is certainly a treat."

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Hovland on Ventura

"It's really hard to win, but you have to obviously play really good golf, but you can play really good golf and still not win. From what I've seen the last couple days in Kris's game, I've been really impressed. I know he's capable of it. He has a lot of talent. He just needs to get that confidence, get the ball rolling. It won't be too long I don't think."

READ MORE: A look at Xander Schauffele's hopes of glory in the final three 2021 Majors

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