Can't-miss Chilean: Joaquin Niemann, 18, ascends to top of world amateur rankings

Joaquin Niemann Sally Kolar Photography

Can't-miss Chilean: Joaquin Niemann, 18, ascends to top of world amateur rankings

Amateur

Can't-miss Chilean: Joaquin Niemann, 18, ascends to top of world amateur rankings

Editor’s note: this story originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Golfweek Magazine. At the time of publication, Niemann was ranked second in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. On Wednesday, he moved to No. 1 in the world, and the story was updated to reflect the change.

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Joaquin Niemann spends many hours back home in Santiago, Chile, practicing on the range at Club de Polo y Equitacion San Cristobal. On some days he beats balls into the evening, as the setting sun shines off the Andean Mountains that loom in the distance.

The 18-year-old Niemann is No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, a tall feat for any amateur, let along a junior. Yet many familiar with the young prodigy are not surprised. One college golf coach predicted Niemann would reach No. 1 in the world by the end of 2017 – Niemann smashed that expectation.

“The first time I met him, I knew what he was capable of,” said Todd Timmerman, a longtime caddie at Sage Valley Golf Club who looped for Niemann in the last three Junior Invitationals at the tony Graniteville, S.C., club.

“In this game, some people have it and some people just play, and Joaquin has it. … You’re going to see Joaquin do many things, I promise it.”

Some would argue he already has. Niemann has a pair of IMG Academy Junior World Championship titles to his name, having won his age division in the prestigious junior event in each of the past two years. He narrowly missed out on two Masters berths at the Latin America Amateur, represented Chile at the World Amateur Team Championships, made the Round of 16 at both the Western Amateur and U.S. Amateur, and he won two Chilean professional events this year.

More recently, Niemann won three straight tournaments, sandwiching his triumph at Sage Valley – arguably the toughest junior event in the world – between two AJGA open competitions: the TaylorMade-Adidas Golf Junior at Innisbrook and the Sergio Garcia Foundation Junior at ChampionsGate.

“He has no glaring weaknesses,” said University of South Florida coach Steve Bradley, for whom Niemann will play beginning this fall. “He does everything well and he does some things really well. He doesn’t lack confidence. There’s not a shot out there that he can’t hit or he’s not comfortable hitting.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in a situation where the moment is too big for him.”

Niemann, nicknamed “Joaco,” was groomed for the big moments starting at 2 years old when his father gifted him plastic golf clubs and balls. Growing up in a house at Club de Polo, Niemann quickly graduated to real equipment.

He remembers one time when he was 4 years old, and he hit a 40-yard shot during a family barbeque at his house that hit his grandmother in the leg. She wasn’t seriously hurt, but there was some blood.

“It was a pretty good shot, though,” Niemann said with a smile.

Niemann’s personality is infectious. When asking some of the best junior golfers in the world about Niemann, they all marvel at his golf game but have equally good things to say about his character. On the course, he’s a determined winner yet extremely even-keeled; he doesn’t get too high or too low – though his piercing ball flight, especially off the tee, stays plenty close to the ground.

“He’s an unbelievably humble kid,” Bradley said. “Now, don’t mistake his niceness for weakness, but he is just a genuinely likable kid.”

Joaquin Niemann Sage Valley

Joaquin Niemann, after winning the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley (Sally Kolar Photography)

Two years ago Bradley heard about this talented 16-year-old Chilean from one of his players, Claudio Correa, who has known Niemann for about 13 years. Soon after, Bradley was on a plane to San Diego to watch Niemann compete in the Junior Worlds.

“I went out there to watch him specifically, and I followed him for all three days and watched him hit every golf shot,” Bradley said.

Niemann won that week, and Bradley later won the sweepstakes for Niemann’s college commitment. Niemann could easily turn professional tomorrow, but the mature teenager believes his path to the PGA Tour involves college golf.

“I don’t like to be away from home, but it’s going to be a good experience,” Niemann said.

Niemann, who plans to take summer school classes this year, will get a chance to see how he responds to life away from Chile, his family and swing coach Eduardo Miquel. Rooming with Correa should help ease some of the expected homesickness.

“I’m going to try to make everything feel a little more like home for him,” Correa said.

Niemann also will be less than a four-hour drive from his best friend, Toto Gana, a freshman at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. Also a Santiago native, Gana and Niemann share more than just a swing coach. They’ve spent the majority of the past seven years together, playing and practicing on the course and hanging out off of it. Their favorite thing to do together: grill steaks and be among friends.

Last January in Panama, the two best friends faced off in a playoff for the Latin America Amateur title – and a Masters berth. Gana won and earned his ticket to Augusta National. Niemann, not bitter in the least, traveled to Augusta to root on his good pal.

“The last day (of the LAAC), we said, ‘All right, let’s just play like we’re together back home in practice, and let’s just enjoy this day,’ ” Niemann said. “It was a dream come true playing for a Masters spot. … It was just Toto’s week.

“I was so close, just one shot from getting into the Masters, but it’s fine. I have another chance next year, so I’m just going to stay patient and wait for my turn.”

Said Gana: “Absolutely he can win next year. Of course I want to win it again, but if not me then I hope it’s him. He deserves it so much.”

The Masters ⛳️ acompañando al TOTEX! A romperla mañana y #disfrutandoelproceso 💪💪

A post shared by Joaco (@joaconiemann) on

A streaky putter, Niemann has worked tirelessly on that part of his game, and he’s been on the right side of the ledger during his winning streak. Correa remembers one time Miquel told him Niemann shot 69 in a recent round but missed five putts inside of 10 feet.

“I always say if he could make more putts, he would be unbeatable,” Correa said.

The gifted golfer who spends much of his practice time in the shadows of mountains? He’s not even close to reaching his peak yet.

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