Last April, Joaquin Niemann strolled the hallowed grounds of Augusta National in tennis shoes, wishing he was inside the ropes instead of outside of them. A few months earlier he had finished runner-up to his best friend and fellow Chilean, Toto Gana, at the Latin America Amateur. But as friends do, he made the trip to watch Gana compete in the Masters anyways.
“Of course I wanted to win, but as Toto and I talked about, that week was his time, his moment,” Niemann said last year. “I just have to wait for my moment.”
Niemann’s moment was Tuesday.
The 18-year-old Niemann proved his title as the world’s top-ranked amateur, firing a final-round 8-under 63 at Prince of Wales Country Club in his native Santiago, Chile, to win the 2018 Latin America Amateur Championship and earn his ticket to play at Augusta National this April.
He finished at 11 under despite opening with a 74 on Saturday. Niemann finished five shots clear of 54-hole leader Carlos Ortiz, a college player at Arkansas and also the younger brother of former PGA Tour player Carlos Ortiz. Ortiz shot a closing 69.
“The first day I was feeling a little bit like I wasn’t myself,” Niemann said. “I was a little nervous. After I finished my last hole on the first day. … I said that I have 54 more holes to bring it back and make it. So since that moment, since the last hole I played on the first day, I felt like another golfer.”
Niemann was just 1 under through seven holes on Tuesday, but then drove the 313-yard par-4 eighth hole (albeit after what Niemann described as “a lucky bounce” off a tree and the bunker) to set up 10 feet for eagle. He followed with five birdies in his next six holes to pull away from the field.
“I felt like I was able to make birdie on every hole,” Niemann said.
Had he not won Tuesday, Niemann was planning to immediately turn pro and play in a pro event in Chile this week before turning his focus to the Web.com Tour. But his LAAC victory alters those plans. Niemann will now turn pro the week after the Masters.
Niemann joins amateurs Doc Redman, Doug Ghim, Harry Ellis, Matt Parziale and Yuxin Lin in the 2018 Masters field. Winners of the LAAC also receive exemptions into the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur, as well as spots in final qualifying for the U.S. Open and British Open. (Niemann was already qualified for all four events, though he’ll lose all of those exemptions after he turns pro.)
Last year, Niemann learned a lot from watching Gana compete in the Masters. Three Chileans have now won the LAAC in its four-year history. Niemann, who nearly made the cut at last year’s U.S. Open, will be trying to become the first LAAC champ to make the cut at Augusta National.
“I learned from last year, when I was outside the course not playing,” Niemann said. “I learned a lot like how to control like the emotions in the course. I was staying with Toto and he told me how he was feeling every day. Of course, there was a lot of nerves, but you’ve got to be patient because I mean, you are 18, 19 years old, and you are playing Masters.
“So, you’ve got to be happy to be there and try to enjoy it as much as you can.”
Niemann’s ideal practice-round partners? “Sergio Garcia, and of course Tiger Woods if he’s going to play,” Niemann said. (Good luck getting those two in the same group, but a kid can dream right?)
As for that pro event in Chile this week? He’ll still play, but should he win (something he’s done a handful of times on that local pro circuit) he’ll yet again have to forfeit his winnings.
Not that he’s complaining; Niemann is seeing green already.