Joaquin Niemann’s final Latin America Amateur will be one to remember

Joaquin Niemann plays his tee shot on the 11th hole during first round of stroke play of the 2017 U.S. Amateur at The Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif. on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. (Copyright USGA/Chris Keane) Copyright USGA/Chris Keane

Joaquin Niemann’s final Latin America Amateur will be one to remember

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Joaquin Niemann’s final Latin America Amateur will be one to remember

Last June, Joaquin Niemann and Claudio Correa were together in Erin, Wis., when they got the email. Niemann, the world’s top-ranked amateur, was playing in his first U.S. Open that week and Correa, a rising senior at South Florida, was there caddying for his friend and fellow Chilean.

The two also were about to be future college teammates. Though it all depended on if Niemann had passed the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), a standardized exam to measure the English language proficiency of non-native speakers that is required by some universities, including USF. The email revealed Niemann’s score, and he needed a 61 or higher to enroll in classes and compete for the Bulls that fall.

Niemann scored a 56.

“Are you kidding me?” Correa said immediately.

“We looked at each other and just laughed for about five minutes,” Niemann said.

It’s all they could do. Sure, Niemann could’ve taken the test again. But at the same time, he already had his sights set on something bigger.

Niemann missed the cut that week at Erin Hills by four shots. Three weeks later, he tied for 29th at the Greenbrier Classic. After making match play at the U.S. Amateur in August, Niemann revealed his desires to turn pro. He just didn’t have a timetable.

Niemann now knows when he’ll make the jump. Well, kind of.

The 19-year-old will tee it up in his fourth and final Latin America Amateur Championship, which begins Saturday at Prince of Wales Country Club.

Fittingly, it will be in Santiago, Chile, Niemann’s hometown.

“I was deciding whether or not to turn pro before this event, but the fact that it’s going to be in Chile, I think this is the best way to close out my amateur career, in Chile with my family and friends,” Niemann said. “It will be so special.”

It just might not be his last event as an amateur. If Niemann doesn’t win, he’ll turn pro the following week. If he wins, he’ll wait until April 9. That’s the day after the Masters, which annually awards an exemption to the LAAC winner.

Last year Niemann finished runner-up to his best friend and fellow Chilean, Toto Gana, who plays at Lynn University. He then accompanied Gana to Augusta National in April.

“It was incredible, but I know it’s not the same watching as it is playing,” Niemann said. “I’d rather be playing this year.”

Niemann and Gana have talked many times about last year’s LAAC and how it was Gana’s week. Niemann hopes this week, it will be his.

“I’ve just been patient,” Niemann said. “I’m going to wait until my moment.”
Said Gana: “Of course I want to win it again, but if not me then I hope it’s him. He deserves it so much.”

Niemann said the biggest difference in his game since last year’s LAAC is his confidence. Niemann’s self-belief has skyrocketed this past year. In addition to qualifying for the U.S. Open and making a Tour cut, he won six consecutive events last year, beginning with a pro event in Chile in March. He also won the prestigious Junior Invitational at Sage Valley in April, and in the past few months he’s won twice more on the Chilean pro circuit while also tying for ninth in a PGA Tour Latinoamérica event in Brazil.

“I feel better about everything that happened (with college) and where I’m at right now, playing every tournament I can play and practicing at home and trying to be with my family as much as I can,” Niemann said, “because when I turn pro I’m going to be traveling a lot.”

Last fall Niemann competed in Web.com Tour Q-School and advanced to final stage. He ended up tying for 108th, but he did close with a final-round 64. He’ll have conditional status this year on the Web.com Tour but likely will have to rely heavily on Monday qualifiers or sponsor exemptions to get into fields initially.

Niemann will compete in a pro event in Chile the week after the LAAC as either a pro or amateur, but he is unsure of when he’ll make his Web.com Tour debut. What happens this week will determine when he starts setting his schedule. (When he turns pro, he’ll forfeit starts in this year’s U.S. Open and British Open, which he received by winning the McCormack Medal last year as the world’s top amateur.)

For now, though, Niemann is focused on this week. He has been playing Prince of Wales nearly every day this year in preparation for the event. He’s confident in his abilities on a course with which he is familiar. He just needs to make more putts.

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

Niemann is hoping that’s the case this week and he can punch his ticket to Augusta. Of course, in Niemann’s case, Plan B is a welcomed consolation. Gwk

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