Chile’s Niemann grabs Tournament of Champions lead

LOS ANGELES (AFP) – Chile’s Joaquin Niemann, riding the confidence-boost of a Presidents Cup appearance, fired seven birdies in a seven-under par 66 on Thursday to take a one-shot first-round lead in the United States (US) PGA Tour Tournament of Champions.

Niemann didn’t win a match in the International team’s Presidents Cup loss to the US at Royal Melbourne last month, but the 21-year-old said the week was a valuable learning experience.

“I think the Presidents Cup was huge for me, for my career, for my future,” Niemann said. “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.”

Niemann, whose six-shot win at The Greenbrier in September secured his spot in the winner’s only Tournament of Champions, showed plenty of confidence on the par-73 Plantation course at Kapalua, Hawaii.

He rolled in a 31-foot birdie putt for his first birdie of the day at the fourth, and his remaining six birdies were all from within 11 feet.

He missed just one green in regulation, and got up and down for par to head into the second round with a one-shot lead over world number four Justin Thomas.

Thomas also played without a bogey, grabbing five of his six birdies on the back nine to take sole possession of second place on 67.

Americans Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler shared third on 68, with defending champion Xander Schauffele heading a group of five players on 69.

Only nine players in the 34-man field were over par in Thursday’s light breezes – which were replaced by gusty winds yesterday.

Despite the relatively benign conditions, it was an eventful day for two-time tournament winner Dustin Johnson.

Joaquin Niemann of Chile plays his shot. PHOTO: AFP