GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – Of the 54 holes that Joaquin Niemann played during his victory at the 2017 Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, the most important one was one that he carded triple bogey on.
Yes, it was the daunting par-4 17th hole during Friday’s second round. Niemann hit his drive into the pine straw, his ball coming to rest against a pine cone. He then hit a knuckle-ball toward the green and his ball trickled into the water right.
“Normally, I would’ve told him to drop,” said Niemann’s caddie, Todd Timmerman, a Sage Valley veteran. “But for some reason I thought he could hit it.”
Niemann went for it and failed to get his ball out of the pond. The triple bogey coast him a chance at the 36-hole lead, and he needed to make a huge up-and-down par on the par-4 18th just to remain a shot back of Min Woo Lee entering Saturday’s final round.
“It sounds weird,” Niemann said. “… but I think that helped me a lot because my mindset was different. I just wanted to go make birdies, birdies, birdies.”
He did. The 18-year-old Chilean made seven of them as part of a final-round, 5-under 67 to finish at 12-under 204, a tournament record since course renovations were done after the 2011 edition. He won by four shots over defending champion Austin Eckroat, who closed with an impressive 66.
“When he was in situations where he needed to make birdie, he would make birdie,” said Lee, who closed with 73 to tie for third at 7 under. “… Couldn’t really stop him.”
After Niemann made what he called an “unlucky” bogey at the par-4 third hole, Lee led by two shots. But Niemann was lights-out after that, making birdies at Nos. 4 and 5 to tie Lee at 8 under.
“From there, I said, ‘Of course I can win this,’ ” Niemann said.
Niemann then took control with a birdie at difficult Nos. 7 and 9. He added birdies at Nos. 10 and 11, and even after a bogey at the par-3 12th after his tee ball landed hard and bounced over the green, Niemann stuck an approach at the par-4 13th and made birdie there.
Five straight pars to close and Niemann stood on the green at the finishing hole, “Weeping Willow,” during the awards ceremony wearing a gold jacket.
“I just enjoyed this last day very much,” Niemann said. “This is the best tournament I can ask to win, and I won it.”
Niemann entered the week as second-ranked player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and coming off a record-setting win at the AJGA’s TaylorMade-Adidas Golf Junior at Innisbrook’s Resort’s Copperhead Course.
His victory Saturday at Sage Valley won’t get him to No. 1, but if he keeps up this level of play, passing Stanford’s Maverick McNealy by the end of the summer is not out of the realm of possibilities.
This was Niemann’s third and final Junior Invitational, as he will head to the University of South Florida in the fall. Two years ago, he made his Sage Valley debut and tied for 10th. Last year, he shared 24th place.
During his victory speech, Niemann joked that Timmerman, who caddied for Niemann all three years, was upset he didn’t win in either of those editions. Timmerman just knew how good Niemann was and could be.
“The first time I met him, I knew what he was capable of,” Timmerman said. “In this game, some people have it and some people just play. Joaquin has it.
“You’re going to see him do many things, I promise you.”