SANTIAGO, CHILE | Nineteen-year-old Joaquín Niemann came into the 2018 Latin America Amateur Championship bearing a heavy load, as a local kid playing in front of friends and family and also as the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world. The Santiago native won nine tournaments in 2017, including four professional competitions in Chile, and qualified for and competed in both the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur championships. In addition, Niemann had two top-3 finishes in the LAAC the past three years. As a result, handicappers made him the favorite in this year’s tourney, expecting the slender, dark-haired teen to become the third Chilean in the first four years of the LAAC to win that championship and earn the invite to the Masters that comes with it.
Those predictions seemed horribly misplaced, however, after Niemann opened the tournament at the Prince of Wales Country Club in this South American capital with 74, which left him 3-over par and six shots back of the leaders. No one could have been blamed for thinking that perhaps the pressure had gotten to be too much. Even Niemann admitted as much when he said after his round: “I let the golf course get the better of me. I was kind of tense and not feeling very focused or relaxed.”
Niemann seemed infinitely more comfortable the second day, shooting 7-under 64. A solid 72 left him only one back of the lead after 54 holes, and then in Tuesday’s final round, Niemann showed why he is No. 1 on the World Amateur Golf Ranking, going on a birdie binge that evoked Johnny Miller at Oakmont during the 1973 U.S. Open. First, Niemann carded a 3 on the par-4 third hole and then took advantage of a good bounce off a tree on the short par-4 eighth to make eagle there before reeling off birdies at Nos. 9, 10, 11, 12 and 14 to get to 11 under. He parred in from there, eventually signing for an 8-under 63 that left him five shots ahead of runner-up and third-round leader Álvaro Ortiz of Mexico. Tied for third at 5-under par were Jaime López-Rivarola of Argentina, Daniel Gurtner of Guatemala and Chile’s Gabriel Morgan Birke.
Last year, Niemann traveled to Augusta National to watch his friend and teammate Toto Gana play in the Masters as the winner of the 2017 Latin America Amateur. But this April, Niemann gets to bring his clubs.