GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – Joaquin Niemann went 34 holes around a difficult Sage Valley Golf Club without making anything worse than bogey. He was cruising along at 10 under, too, and with a two-shot lead on the field Friday afternoon at the Junior Invitational.
Then came the par-4 17th hole, the toughest hole on the course, which was changed considerably during the 2014 renovation of Sage Valley to bring the water right of the green into play. That’s where Niemann’s approach shot ended up Friday.
“Ninety percent I was going to drop it,” said Niemann, whose ball was almost completely submerged just off the bank. But after talking with his caddie, Niemann decided to play it. After one swing, the ball stayed in the water. So he then dropped and ended up making triple bogey.
“I’m still happy because I haven’t made a bogey for the tournament, just a triple,” a good-spirited Niemann, who carded a 2-under 70, said with a laugh. “It was tough. I played really good good, same as yesterday. I just hit a bad shot.”
Instead of leading the tournament entering Saturday’s final round, Niemann is 7 under and a shot back of last year’s runner-up, Min Woo Lee. The Australian fired a blistering 65 to tied the tournament record, also held by Austin Eckroat (2016) and Gabriel Lench (2015).
Some 15 yards longer off the tee this year, Lee has made the 7,437-yard Sage Valley layout look much easier than it really is. He needed just a 52-degree wedge at the 499-yard 17th and a pitching wedge on his second shot at the 549-yard, par-5 15th.
But the key, Lee said, was the putter. He struck just 12 putts on the back nine.
“I felt good over everything,” said Lee, who birdied Nos. 10, 13 and 15-17 on his closing nine. The most impressive was an 8-foot sliding putt after a nice tee ball at the 224-yard, par-3 16th.
Niemann’s putter has also had its highlight moments this week, though he didn’t need it at the par-4 opening hole, where the world’s second-ranked amateur chipped in for birdie. He also made a crucial par save from 20 feet at the par-4 closing hole.
“Was playing really relaxed, really good golf,” Niemann said. “Other than No. 17, it was a really good day.”
Lee and Niemann weren’t the only ones to have a really good day. LSU commit Garrett Barber shot 6-under 66 to vault to T-2 at 7 under. And John Axelsen also shot 66 to move to T-4 at 5 under along with Alabama signee Davis Shore, who shot 68.
Axelsen and Shore finished third and fourth, respectively, at last year’s Junior Invitational and are each making their third appearance at Sage Valley. (Shore also finished runner-up two years ago.)
“My irons shots were so good,” said Axelsen, who is from Denmark and is signed with Florida. “The best they’ve been in forever. This is my best iron game to date.”
So what will it take to win the gold jacket on Saturday?
“I’m going to go for it,” Axelsen said. “But I just have to play own game, try to make a lot of birdies and see if that’s enough. … I’m going to be aggressive tomorrow.”
Said Niemann: “I just feel like if I play really good golf, I can win. I know I can do it.”
Said Lee: “I think another 7 under would do the job.”