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Nicolai Højgaard recalls moment that lit a fire and set the foundations for huge opportunities in 2024

Nicolai Højgaard recalls moment that lit a fire and set the foundations for huge opportunities in 2024

By Mathieu Wood

Nicolai Højgaard distinctly remembers the moment that ignited a spark which transformed 2023 into the best year of his young career so far.

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Nicolai Højgaard turned professional in early 2019

After a third missed cut in four starts at the Made in HimmerLand, his home tournament, in early summer, he watched on with pride as two days later twin brother Rasmus became the first Dane to win the title.

It proved to be a source of motivation that led to Nicolai to realise some lifelong ambitions during a momentous second half to his golfing year.

Without it, the memories of competing in a Ryder Cup for the first time, winning his maiden Rolex Series title and securing a PGA TOUR card wouldn’t be there to cherish.

“Watching Rasmus win in HimmerLand was one of the coolest moments of the year for me,” Højgaard tells the DP World Tour.

“I was like, f* * *, I need to figure this out. I need to work smarter.

“It lit a fire in me, and I like to think that I have lit a fire in him as well.”

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Nicolai (left) celebrates with Rasmus after his twin brother won the Made in HimmerLand

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Nicolai was woefully out of form. Far from it, in fact. At the time, he had six top tens to his name, including a runner-up finish on the PGA TOUR in the Corales Puntacana Championship.

His words only highlight the relentless pursuit of improvement that sets elite athletes apart.

A week after his Denmark disappointment, he finished in a tie for sixth at the Genesis Scottish Open – an event co-sanctioned by the PGA TOUR that featured eight of the then top 10 players in the world.

With the result, Nicolai claimed the last of three Open Qualifying Series places up for grabs to join Rasmus in the field for The 151st Open at Royal Liverpool. In doing so, the duo became the first set of twins to play in golf’s oldest Major Championship.

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Højgaard finished in a tie for 23rd at The Open last year

This was not the first time the Højgaard name had been written into the history books, however. Victory for Nicolai at the Italian Open in 2021 – a week after Rasmus had won the Omega European Masters – saw the pair become the first brothers to win back-to-back events on the DP World Tour.

From The Open onwards, he didn’t look back. After finishing inside the top 25 at Hoylake, he challenged for a third DP World Tour title in both the Czech Republic and Switzerland, performances that helped him earn a Captain’s Pick from Luke Donald for the Ryder Cup in Rome.

So, how would Højgaard summarise what helped him climb from 128th on the Official World Golf Ranking ahead of the Genesis Scottish Open to a career-high 50th at the end of last year?

Put simply, discipline. Sticking to a “process”, in other terms. It’s an expression so often heard in sport but without a structure, goals are harder to attain.

“With all the years of practice and figuring this game out, I am certainly growing in maturity and taking more self-responsibility,” he explains.

“You learn to manage your expectations and prioritise your work ethic instead of looking at results as black and white.”

With all the years of practice and figuring this game out, I am certainly growing in maturity and taking more self-responsibility.

Højgaard is one of the headline names in the field for this week’s inaugural Dubai Invitational, an event featuring 60 professionals and 60 amateurs at Dubai Creek Resort.

It is the first of back-to-back events in the United Arab Emirates that Højgaard is competing in, with the Hero Dubai Desert Classic to follow next week.

After the first Rolex Series event of the year, he will base himself in Florida and play predominantly on the PGA TOUR, before returning to the DP World Tour later in the year.

Playing on both sides of the Atlantic is no easy task, especially when it is still relatively new but here is a man relishing the opportunity of competing at the very top echelons of the game.

“I'm going give it my all in the States,” he adds. “I can't wait to play over there on the PGA TOUR, but I am also very excited for the fall on the DP World Tour.”

Having made his Ryder Cup debut in Rome last autumn, he is well equipped to deal with the increased focus on him. He is indisputably one of Europe’s leading talents on the world stage.

The youngest member of Team Europe at 22, Højgaard played three matches in his rookie appearance at golf’s most celebrated team competition, making eight birdies as he registered a half point alongside Jon Rahm in Friday’s fourballs, before suffering defeats alongside Tommy Fleetwood in the same format on Saturday and in Sunday’s singles to Xander Schauffele.

“I wish I could have performed better,” says Højgaard, asked to assess the week.

“But there is a reason for everything, and it was a big learning week for me. Everybody just wanted to get that cup back in Europe’s hands.

“It doesn’t get any better. No tournament can overcome that one.”

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Højgaard celebrates helping Team Europe regain the Ryder Cup

He had contributed to a European victory, one that extended their 30-year unbeaten run on home soil.

By his own admission, Højgaard admits he felt different as a golfer following the Ryder Cup. The experience of being around some of his idols, in a team atmosphere and playing against the best players in the world provided a stimulus for him to kick on.

“After the Ryder Cup, along with my team we made a really good plan for how I wanted to finish 2023,” he reflects.

The last time we saw Højgaard play, he was holding off a stellar field featuring the leading 50 players on the Race to Dubai Rankings to win the DP World Tour Championship.

A week earlier, he finished runner-up to Max Homa at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa. Even in his wildest dreams, it’s hard to imagine he could have hoped for a better climax to his year.

In his immediate post-round interview at the Earth course, Højgaard described the third DP World Tour title of his career in as many years as “the sweetest one”.

Much of that was because the win was realised in front of his parents, something he was yet to achieve.

“My parents (Ole and Tina) sacrificed a lot and are a massive reason behind mine and my brother’s success,” he says.

“I am always smiling when I think back to it. When you look back on your career, you want to have racked up as many wins as possible but to have this memory with my best friend from back home, my parents and my girlfriend standing by the 18th green is one of the best moments I’ve had on a golf course.”

Amid his personal achievement, there was disappointment for Rasmus, who just missed out on one of the ten PGA TOUR cards available to those, who unlike Nicolai, had not already secured US playing privileges for 2024.

Yet, who was the first to congratulate Nicolai at Jumeirah Golf Estates? None other than his twin brother, soon followed by European great and fellow Dane Thomas Bjørn who has acted as a mentor to the pair during their development.

As a result of his victory, Højgaard rose to a career-high 50th on the Official World Golf Ranking, a position he retained at the close of the year.

The result: an invitation to make his Masters Tournament debut in April.

“All of us have seen it on TV for many years and there have been so many iconic moments. It’s such a special event,” he says joyfully.

“I am looking forward to the challenge. My family are going to come over too and they’re excited so I’m sure we’re going to have a good week no matter what.”

As Nicolai approaches the new year with excitement, optimism, and a sharpened focus, it would come as no surprise to see both the Højgaards continue to inspire each other.

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