Michaux: Niemann wins Latin America Amateur, earns Masters berth

Joaquin Niemann spent two weeks around Augusta last April and left town determined to come right back.

“It’s my goal to be there next year playing,” the then 18-year-old Chilean said after winning the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley two weeks after following his best friend at the Masters Tournament.

Niemann, the world’s No. 1 ranked amateur since May, has been promising that 2018 would be his year after missing out on a spot in last year’s Masters in a playoff loss to his friend Toto Gana in the 2017 Latin America Amateur Championship. He talked about “waiting my turn” and that next year would be “my chance.”

With this week’s Latin America Amateur being staged in his hometown of Santiago, Chile, Niemann delivered on his promise. With a tournament-best 63 in the final round Tuesday, Niemann rode a 7-under run on seven holes to chase down the leader and soar clear of a tightly packed leaderboard to a five-shot victory over Mexico’s Alvaro Ortiz at the Prince of Wales Country Club. He is the third Chilean golfer to win in the four LAAC’s played.

Niemann recovered from an opening-round 74 that left him six strokes off the lead in 37th place. But his Sunday 64 and Tuesday 63 were at least two strokes better than any other round shot all week by the rest of the field.

After falling two shots short in 2016 and one shy last year, Niemann’s victory earned him a berth in the 2018 Masters – putting his plans to turn professional this week on hold for another 75 days until April 9.

“As I was walking to my car (Tuesday morning) I say to myself, ‘Let’s make your last round of golf as an amateur a good one,’” he said. “I guess after that round I have to keep amateur until after the Masters, at least. Right now my game is feeling really good for the Masters. I can’t wait until April.”

There is something to be said for maintaining a positive attitude. Just as he was motivated on his third and final attempt to win in Graniteville last April, Niemann was energized by his previous close calls in the LAAC.

He didn’t begrudge Gana’s win last year in Panama, instead supporting his longtime playing partner by traveling to the Masters and walking the course every day from Tuesday through Saturday. Gana struggled with rounds of 81-80 to finish last in the field.

“Last year I was outside the ropes not playing,” said Niemann, who got to see first-hand what he’d only experienced through TV and video games. “I learned a lot like how to control the emotions on the course. Staying with Toto he told me how he was feeling every day. Of course there was a lot of nerves. You’ve got to be patient. You’re 19 years old and you’re playing the Masters, you’ve got to be happy to be there and enjoy it as much as you can.”

Gana, who started Tuesday one shot off the lead in a three-way tie with Niemann, was happy his friend finally earned his due.

“Of course I want to win it again, but if not me then I hope it’s him,” Gana said. “He deserves it so much.”

When it was over this time, Gana congratulated Niemann and told him it was his turn to return the favor with an invitation to watch him play the Masters.

Niemann should be more capable of making the cut at Augusta National than the previous three LAAC winners, none of whom shot better than 76 as each missed the weekend.

None of the previous Latin America Amateur winners had ever competed on a major stage with the best golfers in the world, and their inexperience showed. Niemann, however, qualified to play in the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills and shot 74-75. Three weeks later he finished tied for 29th in the PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic.

“Sometimes you get afraid of that and I felt like last year playing the U.S. Open I take out that fear from playing with pro guys,” Niemann said. “I think I feel ready for playing in the Masters and I think I can make the cut.”

Niemann, who goes by the nickname “Joaco,” has long been considered a can’t-miss professional prospect. He won four pro tournaments in Chile last year. When his offer to play at the University of South Florida fell through because of his English proficiency test score, he competed in the final stage of the Web.com Tour qualifying school in December. He tied for 108th despite a final-round 64 and gained nothing more than conditional status, allowing him to remain amateur for one more shot at the LAAC.

“Probably it was good to not make it there because right now I get a chance to play the Masters,” he said.

Enrique Orellana, who missed the cut in 1964, had long been the only Chilean golfer to ever compete in the Masters. Suddenly there’s been a surge in red-hot Chile golfers with Matias Dominguez (2015), Gana (2017) and Niemann (2018) gaining entry through the LAAC.

“I think having two Chileans hoist that trophy before was also a big influence,” Niemann said.

Niemann is the best bet to finally break through as a global superstar and be an inspiration for the Latin America Amateur that Hideki Matsuyama has been to the Asia-Pacific Amateur.