PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – After Joaquin Niemann cleaned up for birdie at the 236-yard par-3 fourth hole at Riviera Country Club, he turned to his caddie and said, “That’s got to be the first time I’ve ever made birdie on this hole and it may be the last time too. ”
It was that type of day for Niemann, the 23-year-old Chile native who drilled a 4-iron to 4 feet at the fourth en route to making birdie at half the holes at Riviera, his favorite course, to shoot 8-under 63 and grab the opening-round lead at the Genesis Invitational.
“It’s one of my best days on the golf course, especially at a place like this with this history,” said Niemann, who entered the week ranked No. 32 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Niemann started on the back nine with birdies on three of the first four holes to start his round. That included his lone bogey of the day at No. 12, but it was a birdie-fest from there as Niemann’s iron play was sensational. Nine birdies and none from longer than 8 feet, 9 inches. One hole after his sizzling 4-iron set up a birdie at the fourth hole, he nearly jarred a 9-iron from 161 yards, which stopped inside 3 feet for another kick-in birdie. Niemann led the field in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-green, gaining nearly seven strokes on the field. It’s the most in any round at Riviera since ShotLink tracking started in 2004. But as he put it, “everything was good today.”
Niemann’s 63 tied the lowest opening round in tournament history, and staked him to a three-stroke lead over a quartet of golfers, including last week’s winner Scottie Scheffler, three-time major winner Jordan Spieth and defending champion Max Homa.
After a sluggish start, Homa ignited his round with an eagle at the par-4, 10th hole, draining a putt from 79 feet off the green, and came home in 31 on the second nine.
“I never thought about making a 2,” Homa said. “That was fun.”
Despite his love of this course and event, Homa has been trying to downplay its importance. He told his instructor, Mark Blackburn, “I could shoot 100 over this week and I still won last year.”
That mindset has him in the mix yet again. Cameron Young, a 24-year-old rookie out of Wake Forest, was the fourth player to return a score of 66 on Thursday. Young played here in the 2017 US Amateur and also got a round in on Monday playing in the Collegiate Showcase.
“That’s all the reminder you need,” he said.
Spieth and Scheffler played in the morning wave under chilly conditions. Spieth credited a hot putter for his stellar start.
“Put in a lot of work the last three days on the putting green, hours and hours with (coach) Cameron (McCormick) to try and really get comfortable stroking it,” Spieth explained. “It was nice to kind of feel like that hard work paid off by getting a break there on the first couple holes. I was able to kind of putt pretty confidently from there. ”
Scheffler enjoyed one of the perks of being a tournament winner with a better tee time this week after claiming the WM Phoenix Open.
“I definitely got a different pairing, finally got out of the first ‑ off group, so that was nice,” Scheffler said. “I did not feel much different. I think it took me a little while to kind of get going. Early pro ‑ am yesterday, early round today, coming off last week, I did not really get as much rest as I wanted to.
“But I’ll get some rest this afternoon.”
Among a large group at 67 were No. 2 Collin Morikawa, no. 8 Justin Thomas and No. 11 Cameron Smith. World No. 1 Jon Rahm shot 69, as did No. 7 and Olympic gold medalist Xander Schauffele.
But no one had a day that compared to Niemann.
“It was one of those days where everything goes your way and that does not happen too often,” he said. “You always work to have days like this but you also know you’re not ever going to have these days four days in a row. It’s a good way to start. I’ve got to get ready for everything and try to play the best I can play. ”