ryder cup 2023

Europe’s secret weapon? Heavy-hitting Nicolai Hojgaard on his Ryder Cup debut and emulating Rory McIlroy

Exclusive: The Dane was one of Luke Donald’s wild-card picks for Rome and offers length off the tee, says Jack Rathborn

Tuesday 26 September 2023 14:17 BST
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<p>After a nervous wait, Nicolai Hojgaard is ready for his Ryder Cup debut</p>

After a nervous wait, Nicolai Hojgaard is ready for his Ryder Cup debut

Nicolai Hojgaard was beating himself up after falling short in the Swiss Alps at the Omega Masters. A blaze of birdies from Swedish phenom Ludvig Aberg not only clinched a maiden DP World Tour title but locked up one of what many assumed to be two remaining wild-card picks for the Ryder Cup. Hojgaard, who finished in a tie for fifth, was facing an anxious wait, hoping he had done enough to convince Europe’s captain Luke Donald of his worth over Poland’s Adrian Meronk.

“I was quite negative, to be honest,” Hojgaard tells The Independent. “But then the phone call came from Luke an hour and a half after the final round.

“I was so nervous, my heart was pumping. It turned out the way I was hoping for and it was the best phone call I’ve ever had. I’m now so excited.”

The Danish player, 22 years of age and the youngest member of Team Europe for Rome, despite Aberg’s dramatic rise since turning professional this summer, looks destined to become an integral part of European golf over the next decade.

Hojgaard and his twin brother Rasmus Hojgaard have combined for six DP World Tour titles already, although Nicolai is yet to feature at the Masters or the US Open and has only featured in 19 PGA Tour-sanctioned events, which makes his game something of an unknown for captain Zach Johnson and Team USA.

Hojgaard’s earliest memory of the biggest stage in professional men’s golf was back in 2008 when compatriot Soren Hansen featured in a 16.5-11.5 defeat to the USA at Valhalla. Now the fourth Danish player to play in the biennial transatlantic team golf event, following Thomas Bjorn, Hansen and Thorbjorn Olesen, Hojgaard is ready for the biggest moment of his career.

“We started back with our Dad in 2004,” Hojgaard recalls, having learned the game in Gyttegaard, Denmark. “We went out and hit it 50 metres. We ran home, screaming and told our Mum how we hit it 50 metres.

“I realised it was the sport for us when we played the Danish championships, at different age groups. We were 10 years old and we beat them, three years in a row. We played more and more and got into the national team. We had a great relationship, but obviously, we were fighting a lot.

“I was immature and couldn’t handle losing to my brother, but it pushed us a lot and that’s one of the reasons we’re here today. When he’s playing well, I really want to play well; we’re brothers and best friends. The relationship is even better than when we were growing up.”

Hojgaard’s mindset has not gone unnoticed in European golf, with the legendary Bjorn – who captained Europe to victory in Paris five years ago – impressed by his burning desire and mentality.

Nicolai Hojgaard arrives at the Cavalieri hotel in Rome

“Nicolai has an unbelievable game,” Bjorn, a vice-captain in Rome, tells The Independent. “His ability as a player, it’s up there with the best. It’s a big, big game. He understands the process is important to develop, he sticks to it and he never overdoes it or underdoes it. He’s always on top of everything, he does all the small things every day. He never gets lazy, he never takes anything for granted. It seems to me he’s full as an athlete, he understands what it takes, it’s hard work, every day. He gets it. I think that’s why he’ll go a long way.”

While defending an amateur title, Hojgaard’s brother Rasmus made birdie on the 18th hole and forced a play-off. A messy three-putt gifted his brother victory, leading to a “tense” couple of days at home. “Sometimes we couldn’t speak to each other for a few days,” Hojgaard admits.

While Donald evidently wants to win now, picking Hojgaard points to the future and not only his youth but a strategy that mirrors the modern game.

“I think the game is played that way,” Hojgaard, who would rank seventh on the PGA Tour for driving distance (315.1 yards) had he played enough events, says when discussing power off the tee. “You have to see the top guys, they can all hit it a long way. There’s a limit though; to be accurate as well, you want to hit 60 per cent of fairways and over 310 yards. I’m working on that, the length will never be an issue. You want to move the baseline.

“We probably have 180-182 (mph) ball speed. If we go to 184 ball speed, can we maintain 60 per cent fairways hit? Going deeper into the stats, how we can improve, that mindset, I like to get away from results, and that’s how I end up playing better. Smaller margins to improve, I want to hit a few more fairways, figuring out a plan to do that and keep the length. Rome is a course that will be really important off the tee, it’s the most important part of the game. That gives me some confidence.”

This week will provide valuable insight into how the world’s best operate, including Rory McIlroy, who is due to find a new partner. The world No 2 has played in 22 partnered matches across six Ryder Cups, though only Shane Lowry from his previous partners is playing this year. Could Hojgaard emerge to form a heavy-hitting duo?

“100 per cent, I want to reach McIlroy’s level,” Hojgaard adds when discussing the Irish golfer. “Rory’s driving, if you draw the perfect flight, just stand behind him and watch his ball flight.

“But not only him, Tyrrell [Hatton], he hits it so straight and Jon Rahm, the way he can close out tournaments. It’s all so impressive, I can’t wait to be around those guys. I just want to learn from them. I feel I know a lot, but compared to them, I know nothing. I want to ask silly questions, trying to get better by being around them. To learn from Rory and Rahm, it’ll be amazing.”

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