Joaquin Niemann turned 21 on November 7 having already received the best present of his life: a phone call three days earlier from International Presidents Cup captain Ernie Els informing the Chilean that he would be part the team headed to Royal Melbourne in December.
“I got the best gift from Ernie so, yeah, I think it’s one of my favorite birthdays,” Niemann said last week in a sit-down interview at Medalist GC in Hobe Sound, Florida.
It’s hard to imagine anything better. Niemann, the 2018 Latin America Amateur champion, who won his first PGA Tour event at this year’s Greenbrier event, will join the ranks of five other players, including Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama, who competed in the Presidents Cup prior to their 22nd birthdays.
“Yeah, I’m really excited,” said Niemann, who is competing in this week’s Mayakoba Classic. “I knew that I was really close to making the team the last couple weeks, but having to wait until November 6 [officially] for the pick. The only thing I wanted was to get onto that team and play with all these guys.”
Niemann has already earned a nickname, Joaco, and a reputation for being able to work the ball left to right, right to left, up and down, which will be crucial at a windy Royal Melbourne.
“I’m really, really impressed with his game and his ball flight," Els, who has played once previously with Niemann, told me from South Africa. "The way he can move the ball. You need to flight it and be able to play in wind. As a kid he’s young, he’s got no brain damage on stuff that happened. So, he’s fresh and ready to go. He wants to win. I was impressed with the way he got his card. Not too many guys have done that. For an international player to do what he did on the U.S. tour really takes some doing at that age.”
Els did give Niemann and his other three picks a break, informing them two nights earlier than the official announcement. Niemann initially missed Els’ call and waited anxiously for five minutes for a callback.
“I was a little nervous, because I didn’t know if it was going to be a good reason or a bad reason, and then he called me it and he was like, ‘Hey, it’s Ernie. I’m just really happy for you. You’re going to get picked for the Presidents Cup.’”
Niemann was at his apartment in Palm Beach Gardens when Els called. He’s acclimated himself in the U.S. by setting up base close to the game’s superstars and has played practice rounds with Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson. He’s also received advice from Jack Nicklaus. Niemann has already joined the Dye Preserve in Palm Beach Gardens and is thinking about joining Medalist, the home club for Woods, among other tour pros.
“I haven’t been around him too much, but I know him a little bit,” Niemann said of Woods, the U.S. Presidents Cup captain and team member. Asked what it would like to compete against Woods at Royal Melbourne, Niemann smiled and said, “I would love to play against him. Match play against him would be awesome for me, I think.” While Woods is 22 years older, Niemann does remember watching Woods on his television set in Talagante on the outskirts of Santiago.
Although he was only 5 years old at the time, the moment Niemann most remembers is the fabled Presidents Cup duel between Els and Woods at Fancourt, South Africa, in 2003.
“I mean, I have nothing to lose,” Niemann, with a big smile, said of a possible Woods matchup. “He’s got more to lose.”