Keeping Score

Niemann leads next-gen stars at Memorial

DUBLIN, Ohio ­– Golf is full of world-beaters. They never stop coming. That is a scary thought, even for some of the world-beaters.

One of Thursday’s stars at the Memorial Tournament was Joaquin Niemann of Chile. He is only 19 years old, but he shot 7-under 65 at Muirfield Village Golf Club to share the first-round lead and, if you were being honest, he might be the greatest golfer in Chile’s history. When he was asked about it, he laughed softly, flashed a bright smile and quickly answered, “I don’t want to say that.”

Niemann already looks as if he belongs on the PGA Tour, and maybe even in a winner’s circle. He drives it piercingly straight, and he shoots low scores. He missed the cut at the Masters in his final start as an amateur. He was the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world at one point, and he may be That Guy – or one of Those Guys – whose name you should write down and underline for future reference. 

“I don’t even know how to say it,” said former PGA champ Jason Day. (Niemann’s first name is pronounced Ah-KEEN.) “I think I walked past him one time; it might have been in Augusta. They’re just so young now these days. They look like pups.”

A world-beater label often isn’t worth the digital pixels it’s written on. A lot of future world-beaters don’t make it to the PGA Tour, or don’t do much when they finally get there.

Thursday’s Memorial Tournament leaderboard featured a handful of other can’t-miss names (scores). They’re here, at least, so they haven’t missed, but they haven’t had easy roads. Jamie Lovemark, who won the 2007 NCAA title and was named the country’s best college player as a freshman at Southern California, is 30 now. He has carved out a place on the Tour after overcoming back issues. He has won almost $6 million. He hasn’t won a PGA Tour event yet, but he’s getting in the mix. He opened with 67 here.

Beau Hossler, 23, was still in high school when he surged toward the top of the leaderboard at the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, eventually finishing T-29. He has come back from a shoulder problem and posted 66.

Abraham Ancer, 27, was born in Texas, grew up in Mexico, went to college at Oklahoma, holds dual citizenship and likes fast cars. He shot 65.

Other promising names on the leaderboard include Grayson Murray (67), former UCLA star Patrick Cantlay (68) and former U.S. Amateur champion Ben An (68).

Day, an Australian, married an Ohio girl, has a home in Dublin and is a member at Muirfield Village. He shot 32 on his opening nine but cooled and finished at 4 under. 

“I’m getting old, and these guys are coming out with a boatload of confidence,” Day said. “They’re not scared to shoot low numbers, and they’re not scared to play against the best players in the world. It’s a breath of fresh air. You’ve got to keep working hard to try to stay ahead.”

Niemann has made a rapid and startling rise. He is closing in on playing his way onto the Tour, a rare feat. He shot a pair of 67s on the weekend and finished sixth at the Valero Texas Open in his pro debut. He tied for eighth last week at Colonial. And, here he is again. If he wins enough FedEx Cup points to earn PGA Tour temporary membership – a solo seventh-place finish would do it – he would be eligible for unlimited sponsor exemptions. That’s one of his goals. Another is to hit his birthday in November and turn 20.

“I can’t wait. No more teen years,” he said. “I played with Fred Couples at the Masters, and every day he said, ‘Good shot, kid.’ ”

The legal drinking age in Chile is 18, Niemann said. “So in Chile, I’m a big guy,” he said jokingly. “Not here.”

Niemann looks more and more like another young phenom. The PGA Tour has been getting a steady diet of them. In recent years, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Spain’s Jon Rahm have arrived. Before them, there were Rory McIlroy and Jason Day.

“It has all been really quick,” conceded Niemann, who planned to enroll at the University of South Florida last year but didn’t get admitted. “Two months ago, I was playing the Masters as an amateur, and now I have already played four tournaments as a pro. I am really enjoying what I’m doing now. Being out here, playing with the best players, it can’t be any better.”

He has set up residence in Jupiter, Fla., and is sharing a house with Claudio Correa, a former USF player who also is from Chile.

After the Memorial, Niemann will play the U.S. Open sectional qualifying Monday in Columbus, and then he’s in the field next week in Memphis.

“He’s played some tremendous golf,” Day said, “so obviously, he’s full of confidence.”

Today, Niemann returns to the task at hand: trying to beat the world.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle


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