Limber Joaquin Niemann, 20 years young, tees off at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday in the Sanderson Farms Championship pro-am. Last week, he became the first Chilean to win a PGA Tour tournament.

Chilean golfer Joaquin Niemann, who is 20 years young and could pass for 17, entered the Sanderson Farms media headquarters Wednesday, sweating and shaking his head.

“Too hot,” he said. “Just too hot.”

Does it get this hot in Chile?

“Oh no,” Niemann said, “not this humid either. It’s too much.”

What did he learn about the CCJ course Wednesday?

“I learned it is good to hit the ball in the shade,” he said, smiling.

Rick Cleveland

We can all identify with Niemann on how he feels about mid-Mississippi’s September heat wave. It’s too much. For seemingly the 50th consecutive day, temperatures Wednesday soared into the mid-to-upper 90s at Country Club of Jackson where many amateurs struggled (and some did not make it) to walk 18 holes in the pro-am.

But where Joaquin Niemann is concerned, here’s something none of us can identify with: His golf game. He may be golf’s next big thing. Heck, he may already be.

At age 18 and 19, he was the world’s No. 1 ranked amateur for 44 weeks. He turned pro before the PGA Tour’s 2018 Valero Texas Open and promptly finished in sixth place. In his first full (2019) season on tour, he won more than $1.4 million. Last week, in his first start of the 2020 PGA Tour season, Niemann won A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier to earn $1.35 million, become the first Chilean to win on the PGA Tour and zoom to No. 50 in the world golf rankings.

Niemann didn’t just win at Greenbrier. He lapped the field. He won by six shots, shooting 64 in the final round. Keep in mind, he is not old enough to buy a Miller Lite at the curb store down the street.

Already, he is considered one of golf’s most pure ball strikers. Any time he putts decently, he will be in contention. If he putts well, he almost surely will win.

He politely issued a warning to the field Wednesday. “These Bermuda greens are some of the best I have ever putted,” he said. “I really like these greens.”

Niemann led the field in putting last week at Greenbrier. He also averaged 341 yards per drive and hit 89 percent of the greens in regulation. All those numbers blend for an unbeatable combination.

With the six-shot victory, Niemann joins an elite list of golfers who have won on the PGA Tour before the age of 21. That list includes such legends as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Gene Sarazen, Ray Floyd, Horton Smith, Seve Ballesteros and Rory McIlroy – not bad company if you can keep it.

Joaquin Niemann.

When you play as Niemann played last week, most any golf course sets up well for you. But the truth is, Country Club of Jackson really, really sets up well. For one thing, the thick Bermuda rough demands accuracy. As Niemann explained: “The rough is thick and high. If you hit the ball there, it is hard to control because you can’t put any spin on it.”

Niemann’s driving accuracy is one of his primary strengths. He whacks it a long way, too, plenty long for the sun-baked, 7,421-yard, par 72 CCJ layout.

The obvious question: Can the young man control his emotions – come back down to earth, as they say – after last week’s life-changing performance?

“It has been pretty crazy,” Niemann said. “I have had friends and family texting. The people in Chile are not really used to such good results in golf. I know I need to keep pushing, keep improving.”

Niemann said his biggest improvement since turning pro has been exactly where it needs to be – that is on the greens.

“I used to go to the practice green and just putt,” he said. “Now, I have drills that I do and I spend much more time practicing and doing those drills. My putting has gotten much better. And when you putt better it makes every part of your game better because you gain so much confidence.”

Those are words of wisdom from a young man of 20 who seems destined to win many, many more tournaments before he is done.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.