RMC co-leader Joaquin Niemann won at 20; he's not stressing getting back to winner's circle

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — When you win on the PGA Tour, expectations rise.

When you win on the PGA Tour at age 20, expectations skyrocket, as Joaquin Niemann learned after taking home his first title at The Greenbrier in 2019. He was 20 years, 10 months and eight days — the only players to win on the PGA Tour at a younger age in the past 50-plus years are Tiger Woods (twice), Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth and Matthew Wolff.

Niemann hasn't gotten back to the winner's circle since, but he has finished runner-up twice this year, including losing in a playoff to Harris English in the year-opening Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.

Joaquin Niemann reacts after making a putt on the 18th green to close Saturday's third round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

He was the co-leader after 54 holes at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, at 14 under with Troy Merritt following a Saturday 68 that, for the third straight day, included no bogeys.

The key to the Detroit Golf Club, players have said throughout the week, is staying patient — and the birdies will come. Staying patient has been a key for Niemann the last two years — he knows another win will come, if not Sunday night in Detroit, then somewhere else.

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"I think everybody's going to have their own moment, and I had my moment pretty early," said Niemann, 22. "I went into a playoff in Hawaii, finished second the week after also. But I took it pretty easy, I just wanted to keep going. I knew that when everything went well, I would win again.

"So I just didn't want to put myself in that stress. Yeah, I know that if tomorrow I have a good day, I can win, and if I don't, it will just be another week I could have my chance to win."

He could become the first player to win on the PGA Tour without making a bogey in nearly two years. His bogey-free streak actually was at 59 holes, including his final five at the Travelers Championship last week.

Side note: One man who won six times at an age younger than Niemann when he notched No. 1: Horton Smith, the late long-time head golf professional at Detroit Golf Club.

Shippen exposure

CBS's final-round coverage of the Rocket Mortgage Classic begins at 3 p.m. Sunday, but it will preceded by a one-hour special on the tournament's inaugural John Shippen National Invitational.

The tournament, featuring 20 men and 12 women competing for PGA Tour and LPGA Tour exemptions, was created by the RMC's marketing wing, Intersport, to promote diversity in the game, while opening up opportunities for the top Black golfers, amateur and professional, without major-tour status.

The men's event was won by Tim O'Neal, who was given a week sponsorship agreement from Rocket Mortgage (he missed the cut). The women's event was won by Shasta Averyhardt, a Flint native, and Anita Uwadia, who earned an exemption into the two-player team event, the LPGA Tour's Great Lakes Bay Invitational in Midland, set for later this month. A second LPGA Tour exemption was awarded to Amari Avery, 17, who won a three-hole shootout for a spot in October's Cognizant Founders Cup in Orlando, Florida.

The Shippen, which was named after the nation's first Black golf pro and included a business summit for recent high-school and college graduates looking to get into the golf business, was so well-received by PGA Tour officials, there is some talk about creating additional Shippen tournaments at other PGA Tour cities.

There are currently two Black players on the LPGA Tour and four on the PGA Tour.

Chips & divots

SHOT OF THE DAY: Easy call, when there's an ace. Troy Merritt, already leading the tournament when he stepped to the 218-yard, par-3 11th, selected 5 iron and one-hopped it into the hole to extend his lead to three strokes at the time. It was his first ace on the PGA Tour, and, he said, his first since a casual round with some buddies back home in Iowa four or five years ago. It was the second ace of this week (Scott Brown, 15th hole, Saturday), and the fourth in the tournament's three-year history.

HOLE OF THE DAY: No. 15 — The shortest hole on the course, it was among the meanest Saturday. Playing just 164 yards, players had issues all day long, regardless of whether the wind was blowing. The hole played over par, and fourth-toughest on the course. With the pin back right, players were cautious not to go long and thus short-side themselves. But coming up short proved no picnic, whether putting or chipping — players struggled to get it there. There were only seven birdies Saturday, second-fewest for any hole on the day (six on No. 11, another par 3). Sean O'Hair doubled to go tumbling from contention. Total through the first three rounds, the centerpiece of AREA 3-1-3 ranks the ninth-toughest hole.

STAT OF THE DAY: 68 — Rickie Fowler's score, tied for his fourth-lowest round of the season, out of 67 rounds. That tells you all you need to know about the struggles he's been enduring, having missed the Masters and U.S. Open, and falling to 95th in the world rankings after missing the cut at the Travelers Championship last week in Connecticut. But there's some brightness to be seen, as he finished tied for 11th at Memorial, after tying for eighth at the PGA Championship. A good round Sunday could get him in contention for his first top-five finish in more than two years.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I just attribute it back to basketball. You know, as a shooter, when you go through slumps, shooters shoot. Putters got to putt, just keep hitting putts. You've got to make them on the golf course, not necessarily on the putting green. You've just got to keep that confidence up knowing that they're going to go in at some point and fortunately we hit that corner." — Troy Merritt, the 54-hole co-leader, on ranking first in strokes gained putting this week. He ranks 59th on the PGA Tour this season in that stat.

LOCALS WATCH: Ryan Brehm (Traverse City/Michigan State) — He snapped a string of seven consecutive missed cuts on the PGA Tour (and eight total, if you count a Korn Ferry Tour stop) with a dandy third-round 67, but he couldn't keep up the momentum on Moving Day, settling for a 1-over 73. After making birdie at each of the four par 5s on Friday, he was even par on those four holes Saturday. Willie Mack III (Flint) — He made the cut on the number, for his first made cut in three PGA Tour starts (he'll also play next week at the John Deere Classic), and he stayed at 3 under after 72. His four birdies were offset by four bogeys. Three of the bogeys were set up by errant drives.

AREA 3-1-3 UPDATE: Rocket Mortgage has pledged a $313,000 charitable donation should any player go 3-1-3 on Nos. 14-16, at any point in the tournament. The feat hasn't been accomplished in the tournament's three-year run, but there's an outside chance entering the final round Sunday. Scott Brown has the best odds, given that he aced No. 15 on Friday (triggering a $25,000 charity donation); he needs eagle on 14 and birdie on 16. Sean O'Hair and Vincent Whaley have eagled the 14th and birdied the 16th.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984