03 January 2020: Burnt in the embers of the Presidents Cup, a hardened Joaquin Niemann shot seven birdies in a spotless opening-round 66 at the Plantation Course in Kapalua. That was enough to earn him a one-stroke advantage over Justin Thomas. The Chilean’s seven-under first-round effort set the tone for another promising year of golf on the PGA TOUR. The ever-present Matt Kuchar was in third at 68 alongside Rickie Fowler.
Defending champion, Xander Schauffele got off to a fine start, four-under 69 helping him into a tie for fifth with Tyler Duncan, Matthew Wolff, Patrick Cantlay and the newly married Jon Rahm.
Great start for Niemann in his Aloha debut
This is the sixth start of the season for Niemann, who is playing his 49th PGA TOUR event. Besides his victory at The Greenbrier, that put him on the flight to Hawaii, the Chilean also has nine top-tens since starting his professional life on the Tour in 2018.
“I think the Presidents Cup was huge for me, for my career, for my future,” said Niemann, who went 0-3-1 in the Presidents Cup last month. Even though he endured heartburn and loss at the keenly contested event in Melbourne, the experience has left a deep impression on the young man from Chile, who was part of the international team led by Ernie Els. “I think during that week I learned a lot, I was with the best players in the world, I was teammates with Adam Scott. I talked a lot with them. It was an unbelievable week. Ernie told me it was really important for you, it’s going to make you really good, it’s going to give you a lot of experience, confidence for the future. So that week was really special for me. I can’t wait for next time. “
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) January 3, 2020
“During the practice round I knew it was going to be tough, there was a lot of wind, on Tuesday especially. Today wasn’t that windy, I played great, made a lot of putts. It was my day,” he added.
Niemann was a late qualifier to the Tournament of Champions, making his candidature with victory in The Greenbrier in September. In his first start at the event, Niemann found 11 of 15 fairways and 17 of 18 greens in regulation in a commanding effort on his debut.
Four bogey-free rounds on Thursday
Thomas, the TOC champion in 2017, made six birdies in a bogey-free round on Thursday. Schauffele and Kuchar were the other two clean rounds of the first round. This was Kuchar’s 95th bogey-free round in a career marked by consistency.
Add these first-time winners to the list of players heading to Maui for the first time! ? #SentryTOC@aLongShot @coreconn
Sung Kang@JT_ThePostman @joaconiemann @jsmunozgolf @thelanto61 @tduncgolf pic.twitter.com/3pBlCbUiYQ
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At Kapalua, Fowler found some consistency too – he was 16 of 16 for putts inside ten feet, which also indicate that the American enjoyed a good day with his irons. Niemann was the only other golfer in the field to make every putt inside ten feet on Thursday.
In stark contrast, Dustin Johnson, a two-time champion of the tournament (2013, 2018) was pulling out some lengthy putts to stay in shape. He covered 166 feet with his putter, the second-most of his career on the PGA TOUR. He is at T16 in the field of 34 golfers.