WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The artillery lobbed around the Old White TPC during this week’s A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier resulted in the kind of scoring that you would be tempted to call, ahem, explosive when it really was just the same old story at the start of a new PGA Tour season.
Joaquin Niemann, all of 20, led the assault on a layout that offered good, old TLC, firing a closing six-under 64 for an easier-than-expected six-stroke victory, a tournament record. With a 21-under 259 total, one off Stuart Appleby’s tournament record, Niemann became the first player from Chile to win on the PGA Tour and, likely, the first player from anywhere to accept a trophy parachuted in by the Army Golden Knights just moments earlier.
He joined Rory McIlroy and Seve Ballesteros as the only foreign-born players in the last 95 years to win on tour before turning 21. He follows Matthew Wolff at the 3M Open as winners this year younger than 21, giving the tour its first set of multiple winners who haven't reached the legal drinking age in a calendar year since 1931 when Tom Creavy, Ralph Guldahl and Chuck Kocsis triumphed.
“It’s really crazy,” said Niemann, who was overcome with emotion on the 18th green where moments earlier he sank the last of his six back-nine birdies, a 22-footer, and then punched the air twice in elation.
Just before pulling his ball out of the hole, he slapped his putter for good measure. And for good reason. He needed it just 25 times in the final round. For the week he made nearly 400 feet of putts and ranked first in strokes-gained/putting (+8.788). Last year, Niemann ranked 141st in that statistic at minus-.170.
“Normally I'm not really like too excited any time. I normally like never do like fist pump and kind of those things,” said Niemann, who said his putting has improved thanks to a training aid, the Perfect Putter. “The emotions in that moment on the last couple holes was just crazy. I was just thinking on the first win I made when I was a kid and I was dreaming on this moment. So just make those putts on the last three holes was unbelievable. I couldn't resist it.”
Niemann, who also shot 64 in the final round last year here to finish T-5, which secured his tour membership, essentially locked up his maiden victory with a key stretch early in the back nine to pull away from a tie with Tom Hoge.
Niemann birdied the 10th from three feet to offset a weak bogey—just his third of the tournament—to close out the front nine. Somehow, he crushed a 215-yard 8-iron through the green at the par-5 12th, but he got up and down from behind the green, sinking a nine-footer. Finally, at the long par-4 13th, Niemann, whose been working on “visualizing shots,” stroked a masterpiece of a putt that would have made the late artist Leroy Neiman envious. The ball swirled in hard from the left and spilled over the front edge.
“When I make bogey on No. 9,” Nieman said, “I saw the leaderboard and I was tied with Tom Hoge. And, yeah, I knew that if I just keep focus on my game I could do a lot of birdies. I got two more par 5s. Just keep focus on that.”
Hoge, coming off a trip to the Korn Ferry Finals where he regained his card, closed with a 65 to outdistance four others for solo second place at 15-under 265.
The Old White TPC proved a friendly place for the tour to begin the new season. It was relatively soft for three days and the wind blew weakly, if at all, for the tournament's duration. The field’s cumulative scoring average of 69.145 was the second-lowest in the tournament’s history, and the layout became the first to surrender two sub-60 scores when Kevin Chappell fired an 11-under 59 in the second round. Chappell also tied Mark Calcavecchia’s tour record with nine straight birdies. Appleby had the first 59 here in the final round on the way to his 2010 triumph.
Niemann, who held at least a share of the lead from the second round on, tied Viktor Hovland for low final round score. Hovland, the rookie from Norway, equaled a tour record with his 17th straight round in the 60s.
The No. 1-ranked amateur for 44 weeks before turning professional in April 2018, Niemann opened with a 65 and immediately started thinking about winning, reasoning that not only does he love the venue, but also, “I’ve got the game.”
Credit there goes to his coach, Eduardo Miquel, who was among the first to text Niemann after the last satisfying putt dropped. Introduced to the game by his father, Niemann can’t wait to go back to Chile to celebrate with Miquel and his family and friends, but that will have to wait until he goes home in December.
Perhaps with a stopover first in Melbourne? Niemann hoped Presidents Cup International Team captain Ernie Els was watching. “Yeah, being on the Presidents Cup is just a dream,” he said. But then again, so was winning.
Well, whenever he gets back, apparently, it’s going to be quite the party.
“We can’t talk about that,” Niemann, who earned $1.35 million, said sheepishly when he was asked what the celebration might entail.
He’d said enough already. He’s got the game. Or maybe around here, they'd call it weaponry.