Joaquin Niemann had to fight to get to this Masters. Now he wants to stay

MIAMI — It was exactly what he wanted. To be nervous. To back himself into a corner and force himself out. It was why Joaquin Niemann was there in the first place, flying across the world for two weeks in Australia. The Chilean golfer has always been one of the most talented players on any course he walks onto. But he was young. He was relaxed. And then he went to LIV.

He kept backing himself into that corner at the Australian Open. He gave up a two-shot lead in the final holes to allow a playoff. Then he missed a makeable birdie on the first playoff hole that would have won it. Nerves. Pressure. Good. From the fairway on the next playoff hole, Niemann stuck it, the ball five feet from the pin. Made the putt. Won the Australian Open.

That shot probably played Niemann into the 2024 Masters.

Joaquin Niemann is the hottest player in men’s golf not named Scottie Scheffler. He is 25. He just won three tournaments in six starts. He was top-five in three more. He’s got a win at Riviera and five professional wins in total. He shot a 59 at a former PGA Tour course. So you might assume he’s a star, right? But despite being No. 9 in the world on DataGolf (which ranks all players from all tours), he’s No. 91 in the Official World Golf Ranking (which does not rank LIV pros).

Niemann chose two years ago to leave the PGA Tour and captain an all-Latin American team with LIV Golf called Torque GC. He reportedly got paid $100 million to do it. And he struggled. “I didn’t play the best,” he said. He finished just 21st in the 2023 LIV standings and was out of exemptions for future majors.

So Niemann made plans during his “offseason” to go to Australia. And Dubai. And then Oman. It was a long shot, but the plan was to jump from 87th in the world to the top 50 and earn a spot in Augusta. And somewhere in these five months, Niemann might have become the golfer he was supposed to be.

“I feel like you could see a change in him,” Torque teammate Mito Pereira said.

Niemann has dug deep and found a version of himself who thrives under pressure. The question is if he can do it on the biggest stage.

Amid the celebration on the 18th green, the mics picked it up. Niemann had just won LIV’s season-opening event in February in Mexico via a playoff, two days after shooting a 59, and before the interview could even start, Niemann muttered: “But I’m not in the majors.”

Some saw it as crass. Some thought it was awesome. But it started the conversation. Niemann’s offseason trips were noticed, but it was still an under-the-radar storyline. He finished fourth at the Australian PGA Championship. He won the Australian Open. Then in January, he finished T4 at the Dubai Desert Classic on the DP World Tour. It was an incredible three weeks in competitive fields, but he was still only 59th to end the year. Niemann understood that. He figured he had to win both Australian tournaments to move into the top 50.

The greater point was that he was more focused. Pereira, a childhood friend from Chile, said Niemann has always been great but has also always been a relaxed person. The type to never think two hours ahead. But last fall Niemann started to realize he wouldn’t be in the majors in 2024, and suddenly a player who had goals of being world No. 1 had to change something. It wouldn’t matter how good Niemann was if he couldn’t play on the biggest stages. Pereira noticed him working harder, going to the gym more, pushing himself and putting himself in situations where he had to succeed.

“I think I liked that kind of pressure,” Niemann told The Athletic last week before LIV’s pre-Masters tournament. “I feel like it pushed me to be better, in a certain way to be more focused, to prepare better, to have my game in better shape.”

Two weeks after Mayakoba, Augusta National gave Niemann one of three special invitations to the Masters without mentioning his play on the breakaway tour. That same week, he played at an Asian Tour event in Oman and placed third. Niemann won again one week after that at LIV’s event in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. This time, an LIV course reporter interviewed Niemann and suggested he would be one of the favorites to win a major championship.

A sarcastic Niemann dryly said: “How is that possible if I’m like 100 in the world?”

Joaquin Niemann leads the season-long LIV standings after winning two of the first three events. (Lintao Zhang / Getty Images)

If Jon Rahm is the best player at LIV, and maybe Brooks Koepka is the most important, and Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson really got the project rolling, and even Cameron Smith won an Open Championship just before coming, then Niemann is the most interesting LIV player entering this Masters. Because Niemann represents something new. He is the first young player to become a top player while playing in the little-watched LIV Golf league. And golf hasn’t figured out what to do with that.

No matter how you feel about LIV or Official World Golf Ranking or Niemann’s candid comments on it all, it’s clear that Niemann cares about the majors. He cares about his place in golf. He said multiple times that he doesn’t mean to be antagonistic, and he’s not somebody who gains motivation from beating other players or making enemies. His motivation is internal, and his frustration is with his ambition and concern he won’t have opportunities to reach it. The reality is the majors carry more weight than ever in a divided tour.

“I want to win the majors,” Niemann said. “That’s the message that I want to give to myself, and that’s the approach I want to have going into these tournaments.”

And Niemann at least gains street cred for going out and earning it, while fellow LIV golfers like Talor Gooch — who won the LIV individual title last year — have criticized the Masters for not giving spots to top LIV players. That has not gone unnoticed among Niemann’s old PGA Tour peers.

“(Joaquin) has been chasing his tail around the world to get this, play his way into Augusta or show enough form to warrant an invite.  I don’t know if the same can be said for Talor,” Rory McIlroy said in February.

This is the challenge for Niemann and LIV going forward. Niemann, Gooch and the 50 others on LIV made choices, and they knew there would be consequences. It’s why Niemann changed his mind nearly every day in August 2022 before leaving the PGA Tour. On the other hand, Torque teammate Carlos Ortiz told Golf Magazine’s “Subpar” podcast that players were given assurances they would receive OWGR points.

It leaves the career of players like Niemann in a fascinating spot. Most of the other stars and team captains already won their majors, earned their fame and became household names before joining LIV. Their success and acclaim were why LIV wanted them. Rahm could feel more comfortable making his move after winning a Masters and a U.S. Open, giving him exemptions for several years. Niemann’s potential and international reach are why LIV wanted him. Yes, he was once the No. 1 amateur in the world, convincingly won the Genesis Invitational and finished 11th in the Tour Championship after four years on tour, but he was just on the way to becoming a force in golf. Still very far from being one.

While Niemann was able to earn his way into most majors this season (he’s not in the U.S. Open yet but can play his way in, either via his Masters and PGA Championship performance or through open qualifying), there’s no guarantee he’ll be back next year unless he thrives in this year’s majors or takes the same route he did this winter. For reference, Koepka finished second at the 2023 Masters and won the PGA Championship but only ranks No. 31 in OWGR. Cameron Smith is No. 62. Major success doesn’t keep one ranked high forever.

Joaquin Niemann’s first LIV win came earlier this year beating Sergio Garcia in a playoff. (Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

LIV CEO Greg Norman withdrew the application for world ranking points in March, ending the hope to change that discussion anytime soon. The expected path for LIV to pursue now is in conversations with the four bodies that govern the majors to provide a certain amount of spots to the top-ranked players in the LIV standings, but there are no indications yet that’s realistic. And while the PGA Tour and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (which funds LIV) remain in negotiations to mend the sport, there’s still no actual timeline to do so. And there’s little knowledge of what a deal would mean for unification.

“It’s weird because we’re playing to get better and not for people to say, ‘Hey, you’re really good, you’re gonna get this,’” Pereira said, “but obviously if you’re that good of a player and you’re not getting anything, it’s a little bit unfair.”

The more interesting element with Niemann is simply attention. Eyeballs. Understanding. If a golfer becomes one of the 10 best players in the world and nobody sees it, is he a top-10 player in the world? When LIV had the golf world’s attention to itself in February thanks to a rainout of the PGA Tour’s Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the rerun of the PGA Tour’s third round on CBS still garnered 11 times more viewers than LIV on the CW Network. Niemann is legitimately good, but he’s not earning OWGR points, he doesn’t have a clear path to majors, and his play is hardly being seen.

Golf fans already knew who Rahm, Mickelson, Koepka and Johnson were. How will the casual fans learn about Niemann?

Which brings us to this week’s Masters.

Most of these discussions are broader issues that will be determined over years and years. Right now, Niemann will play the Masters for the fifth time. He ranks No. 9 on DataGolf and has the eighth-highest odds to win at BetMGM. The respect for Niemann is there. And the best way for him to announce himself is with a great week at Augusta.

But even before the qualification dilemma, Niemann hasn’t always thrived at the majors. He has just three top-25 finishes in 19 majors, and his T16 at last year’s Masters remains his best-ever major finish. Then again, he’s made three straight Masters cuts. This is a place where guys improve over time.

The hope is that this is a different Niemann. This is the guy who went to his friends last fall and said, “I need to get into the majors.” The one who spent more time in the gym, who practiced with more focus, who understood he needed pressure on himself, and once he had it he rose to a new level.

This version of Niemann understands that OWGR No. 1 is no longer the goal it used to be.

“There’s no world rankings,” Niemann said, thinking about how to put it. “If you want to be the best, you have to win more majors than anybody else.”

This week, he’ll approach the first tee at Augusta, and his heart rate will get a little higher. His hands will get a little shakier. He’ll be nervous. And we’ll find out if Niemann is ready.

(Top photo illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photo: Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images)

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