Niemann steals the show on Rahm’s LIV debut

Mark McGowan
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Joaquin Niemann (Photo by Jon Ferrey/LIV Golf)

Mark McGowan

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Jon Rahm’s LIV debut was the pre-tournament talking point, but he was upstaged bo Joaquin Niemann who goes down in the record books having shot the lowest score ever at El Camaleon and became the second LIV player to break 60 since the league’s inception back in 2022.

Torque GC’s Niemann got the 2024 LIV Golf League season off to a perfect start with a 12-under 59, matching the ‘to par’ total set last year by Crushers GC captain Bryson DeChambeau, though Bryson’s -12 saw him clock in with 58 strokes at Greenbrier.

“It was obviously an amazing round,” said the 25-year-old Niemann from Chile. “I played solid since the beginning, and I never stopped playing good.”

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Thanks to his career-low round, Niemann has a five-shot lead over Patrick Reed (64) going into the weekend. Sergio Garcia is another shot back. Those three will be in the leaders group off the No. 1 tee Saturday; the shotgun start for the second round has been moved up to 17:45 Irish time.

Rahm is tied for fourth with Laurie Canter and Richard Bland after shooting a 66 that started fast with five birdies in his first seven holes but ended with his only two bogeys of the day.

“I feel like one of those bogeys, 17, was avoidable,” Rahm said. “18 was just unfortunate. But it doesn’t take away from how good I played those 16 holes.”

Thanks to Niemann’s fireworks, Torque has the team lead at 13 under, with the revamped Cleeks GC tied for second at 8 under with Reed’s 4Aces GC. Torque won a league-leading four times in the regular season last year.

After opening his round with a par on the second hole, Niemann birdied the next five holes, made one par and followed with two more birdies before holing out from the fairway for an eagle-2 at the par-4 11th. At that point, he was 9 under through 10 holes.

He said for most of the day, he was unaware exactly where he stood in relation to breaking 60. When he reached the 12th hole, he said he wasn’t sure if the course was a par 71 or 72 and “I didn’t want to do the math.”

But already at 12 under when he got to the 18th hole, his next to last, he heard shouts from the crowd to go for 58. That’s when he realized it was a par 71. “Wow, I’m right there,” he recalled.

Rahm, who was playing in the group behind Niemann, received a quick display of how talented his fellow competitors are in his new surroundings.

“What is it now, 23 LIV Golf events, there’s a 58 and a 59? It’s pretty impressive,” Rahm said. “… I would confidently say that I would have a bet a lot of money against a 59 here this week, just because of how narrow the fairways are.”

Told about Rahm’s comment, Niemann smiled as he offered the perfect retort: “He owes me money, then.”

Pre-tournament favourite Rahm started with a birdie and was five-under through seven holes before his momentum slowed. Still, he enjoyed the vibe of his first LIV Golf event and certainly enjoyed playing with Talor Gooch and Cameron Smith, the top two players from last year’s Individual Championship race.

“Two of the nicest people you can get paired with,” Rahm said.

Rahm acknowledged checking the leaderboard to see his teammates’ scores. “The first few times, I was more interested in how the team was doing than myself, which was definitely something new,” Rahm said. “I think Cam caught me looking. He said that it’s crazy how you might care more about the team that you individually.”

Garcia will start Saturday’s second round six shots back of the lead. He knows the tournament is in Joaquin Niemann’s hands now.

“There’s nothing you can do,” Garcia said. “It’s as simple as that. You’ve got to go out there, and it’s not easy to shoot 6-under on this course, so don’t even think about 12. … If Joaco goes out there and shoots 3- or 4- under and 3- or 4-under on the weekend, there’s nothing really to do.”

Graeme McDowell, making his debut as a Smash GC member after two seasons on the Cleeks, shot a level-par 71 that gets him on the team scoreboard. A former winner in Mayakoba when it was a PGA Tour stop, McDowell brushed aside a slow start and moved up the board with four birdies in a five-hole stretch in the middle of the round, but gave back three shots in a two-hole stretch towards the end before digging deep to birdie the last.

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