Joaquin Niemann, young in age but big in talent, shares Memorial lead

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Joaquin Niemann, young in age but big in talent, shares Memorial lead

PGA Tour

Joaquin Niemann, young in age but big in talent, shares Memorial lead

DUBLIN, Ohio – Joaquin Niemann is still a teenager for 160 days. When he smiles – which he does a lot – he showcases two full rows of braces. He doesn’t know too many guys on the PGA Tour yet, so he plays his practice rounds alone and on Mondays.

And at this past Masters, where Niemann played as an amateur, Fred Couples kept saying, “Nice shot, kid,” to Niemann. He did that often because Niemann plays golf well beyond his years.

The 19-year-old Chilean, playing in just his fifth PGA Tour start as a pro, carded eight birdies and fired a 7-under 65 Thursday to grab a share of the first-round lead with Mexico’s Abraham Ancer at the Memorial Tournament.

“It was really nice being out there and playing good golf,” Niemann said. “I made a lot of birdies. I hit it really good from tee to green, so really happy how it (went) today.”

Niemann showcased a lot of what many who cover the amateur game saw when Niemann was the world’s top-ranked amateur. He missed just three greens with his pure ballstriking ability and used a piercing low ball flight off the tee to hit eight of his 14 fairways.

He took the pressure off of his putter, too, as he had just four putts of more than 20 feet. He also made all 16 of his putts from 10 feet and in.

“I was just saying the other day, these (young) guys are just coming out with a boatload of confidence,” said Jason Day, who was bested three shots by Niemann in Round 1. “They’re not scared to shoot low numbers, and they’re not scared to play against the best players in the world.”

Asked what part of Muirfield Village he liked the most, Niemann responded: “Everything.” Many college coaches said the same thing about Niemann while recruiting him as a junior.

Niemann is now 18 under in his last nine PGA Tour rounds and is moving closer to special temporary membership, which would allow him unlimited sponsor exemptions. Not that Niemann is running out of his allotted seven. He’s already finished in the top 10 twice in four starts, placing solo sixth in his pro debut at the Valero Texas Open and tying for eighth last week at Colonial.

“After those two top-10s, I have gained a lot of confidence in my game and I’m also feeling better and I feel able to be out here and play good golf,” Niemann said.

Niemann, currently at 180 non-member FedEx Cup points, needs 89 more to become a special temporary member. He would accomplish that goal with a solo-seventh finish or a three-way tie for sixth this week at Memorial.

Not that Niemann is crunching the numbers. He’s just focused on playing golf and getting used to being on Tour. The adjustment has been quick, too, much like that of Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm, who each achieved special temporary status in their fourth starts on Tour as pros.

“I think that it has been all really quick,” Niemann said. “Two months ago I was playing the Masters as an amateur and right now I’m already played four tournaments as a pro and it feels really nice. I just really am enjoying what I’m doing now and still I love golf. So being out here, playing with the best players, it can’t be any better.”

Niemann could’ve been just wrapping up his freshman year at the University of South Florida. He was committed to the Bulls before test-score issues prevented him from enrolling and joining the team last fall. He was supposed to room with countryman and friend, senior Claudio Correa, in Tampa, Fla., but now as a pro finds himself roommate with Correa in Jupiter, Fla. (They recently moved into their place.)

The Bulls didn’t make it to the NCAA Championship this past week at Karsten Creek, falling just short in regionals. Niemann, though, still watched some of the coverage on the Golf Channel this week.

“To think that I maybe was going to be there playing,” Niemann said, “and now that I’m here, it feels way better.”

As it should when you’re atop the leaderboard, and at just 19 years old.

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