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Joaquin Niemann is making 'The Leap' before our eyes at the Sony Open

January 14, 2021

Cliff Hawkins

The PGA Tour has three opening days. The first is the Safeway Open, the official first tournament of the wraparound season. The second is the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which is always the first tournament of the calendar year. The third is the Sony Open, which … well, come to think of it, it’s a rather weak claim to the throne. It is, however, the first full-field event of 2021, which (I guess) is worth something?

Joaquin Niemann, Jason Kokrak and Peter Malnati share the lead after matching eight-under 62s at Waialae Country Club, a 1920s Seth Raynor design that seems to be playing better than ever—it’s undergone some recent work, and the lack of fans and grandstands has opened up vistas and highlighted the subtleties of the design. Fun viewing indeed.

Joaquin Niemann absolutely deserves a spot in the Best Young Player conversation

We in golf media have written countless stories about the upstart triumvirate of Matthew Wolff, Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland. Which, in our defense, makes sense—they’re all young, they all turned pro around the same time, and they’re all really freakin’ good. Niemann hasn’t factored in that conversation because he turned pro a full 13 months earlier than the others, and his pro career got off to a slower start. Not slow, by any means, but slower than the breakneck pace set by those three.

Well, he’s catching up. Quickly. And, having just turned 22 in November, he’s more than a year younger than both Hovland and Morikawa.

Niemann, who became the first Chilean to win on the PGA Tour with his victory at the 2019 Greenbrier Classic, lost in a playoff last week to Harris English at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. That propelled him to a career-best ranking of No. 31 in the world, and he’s in prime position to contend again this weekend after an opening-round 62. He has made 40 birdies over his last five rounds. He’s a combined 33 under over those last five, and 17 under over his last two. He’s on a heater, plain and simple. Oh, and he’s close to raising enough money to pay $2.1 million for a life-saving treatment for his young cousin, Rafita, who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy. What a guy.

Like Morikawa and Hovland, Niemann was the No. 1 amateur in the world at one time. And like Wolff, he has a uniquely explosive swing that you won’t find in any instruction manuals. This guy is going to be a top-10 player in the world for a very long time, perhaps by the summer. Seriously.

Gregory Shamus

Peter Malnati, one of the good guys on tour, also fires 62

There are good guys on the PGA Tour, and Peter Malnati is one of them. He’s kind, unassuming and honest. Here’s what he said after finishing runner-up at the Sanderson Farms in October, when he closed with 63, went to go kill time with his wife and young son, then was leapfrogged by Sergio Garcia.

“This is my dream job, and I get to do it every day, and it beats me up and it’s hard, and the competition out here is so strong, and you fail so much. What I did out there today felt like, it just felt awesome. I feel like I won the tournament.”

If he keeps playing like this, he just might get the taste of what it feels like to actually win a tournament again. The 33-year-old Missouri grad made nine birdies and one bogey to pace the morning wave. With two top-fives already on the season—he followed up the runner-up at Sanderson with a T-5 at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open—he basically has his tour card locked up for next year, which should free him up to go chase a win. Like, an actual win.

Those little white stakes marked internal out of bounds on the 18th hole at Waialae, a set-up change made by the PGA Tour staff on the eve of the Sony Open.

Internal OB is the talk of the town

We’ve all been there—you’re playing on some course where all the holes are on top of each other, and you hit one onto another hole, and where the hell did that white stake come from? I have to re-tee?!?! To golfers, internal OB is about as fun as a root canal. After all, if you can see the ball and hit the ball, shouldn’t you be able to?

And yet, everyone seems to be getting a kick out of the internal OB down the left side of the par-5 18th this week. My colleague Brian Wacker has the details behind the decision—basically, they don’t want guys playing down the 10th fairway—and here’s to (quietly) hoping that this comes into play down the stretch on Sunday. Because pros should sometimes have to deal with some of the maddening stuff us normal golfers do.

Mark Rolfing should run for governor of Hawaii

Is there any one person in golf more closely associated with one state than Mark Rolfing and Hawaii? The former head pro at Kapalua—the Google machine is the gift that keeps on giving—and longtime Hawaii resident has become synonymous with the early year, laidback broadcasts of the two Hawaii tournaments, and he was in fine form on Thursday. Trade Winds? That’s elementary stuff. We were talking about Kona winds, and the Kalaniana’ole Highway, and a bunch of other Hawaiian words that I cannot spell nor pronounce. Can’t even imagine what he’s got in store for Sunday afternoon.