You’re 22. Your oldest friends, your architect-in-training girlfriend, your mother, your father and your siblings are 5,000 miles away. You talk to your golf ball in your native language (Spanish) and to your caddie in your adopted one (English). And now you are standing over a putt, a dipstick over 15 feet, to win the biggest title of your young professional career, the Tour’s summer stop at the venerable Detroit Golf Club, the 2021 Rocket Mortgage Classic. If the putt goes in, you’re going to Maui in January and Augusta in April and $1.3 million will come your way by direct deposit.
Those things you can put in a box. But this you cannot: hole, ball, putter, self. All those eyeballs. All that silence. Nobody you can reach out and touch.
You’re on your own, pal.
Joaquin Niemann, the greatest golfer in the modest history of Chilean golf, is by no means the first player to find himself alone on that stage. But, on that Sunday in July, Niemann knew something he didn’t know when he won his first Tour event, at the Greenbrier resort, in September of 2019: You’re less alone than you know. Two events helped him get there.
Evento No. 1: Niemann grew up on Sergio García, transfixed by the Spaniard’s tournament play across the world and by his Ryder Cup heroics. As a Chilean, Niemann had no path to a Ryder Cup team, despite his German ancestry, despite his residence in South Florida. But he could experience global team golf through the Presidents Cup, and in 2019 he was picked to play on the International team, by its captain, Ernie Els.
The Americans, led by playing captain Tiger Woods, beat the Internationals. Niemann’s play was poor. And still the experience was a huge positive for him. “I was young,” Niemann said. He was 21, at the end of his first full year as a pro. “I didn’t know these guys.” We’re talking about legends (Ernie, Adam Scott), young guys (Cameron Smith, Abraham Ancer), various others (Hideki!). “Ernie gave a motivational speech that still gives me goose bumps,” Niemann said. “It was amazing how we came together. When it was over, I felt so connected to everybody on that team.”
Quick aside: How about Joaquin’s expressiveness in his adopted language? Four years ago, he could not get into the University of South Florida, because his TOEFL score —Test of English as a Foreign Language — was not high enough. “I never studied,” Niemann told me, speaking of his school life in Chile. “In every class, I just waited for recess. All I ever wanted to do was play professional golf.” Niemann was 19, just as Sergio was, when he turned pro. He was ready.
Evento No. 2: Joaquin’s parents divorced when he was in eighth grade. He followed his engineer father to Santiago, an hour and then some away from his childhood home. Santiago, he knew, would be better for his golf, even though Niemann had always been closer to his mother and her large, extended family. His mother’s cousin gave birth late last year to a boy with a rare, often fatal genetic disease called spinal muscular atrophy. This sounds like science fiction but it’s not: There was, somewhere in the medical world, a single cutting-edge gene-therapy injection that could save the boy’s life. But the cost was $2.1 million.
Niemann got to work. He wrote checks, he made pledges. He put his name on national and international fundraising campaigns. It was draining, emotionally. But the life of his mother’s cousin’s son hung in the balance and Niemann knew he could make a difference. The money was raised, the boy got the injection. “He’s getting stronger every day,” Niemann said.
Through the ordeal, Niemann became aware of his own status as a national figure in Chile, bound for the Summer Games in Tokyo. And something far more personal too. “Players I didn’t even know made contributions,” Niemann said. “So many players came up to me and said, ‘How’s your cousin? How’s he doing?’ ” We are family.
Still, in professional golf, every shot makes somebody happy. Niemann missed that 18-footer to win in Detroit. That meant a three-way playoff, which was won by Cam Davis, a tall, lanky Aussie. Niemann and Davis will likely be teammates next year when the Presidents Cup will be played at Quail Hollow.
Teammates for a week. Combatants now and again. But consider what they share: a time, a place, a singularly odd profession. Each knows what the other endures. Others do too.