By Tim Liotta
Joaquin Niemann Still Looking for His Path into 2024's Majors
One down, three to go for Joaquin Niemann, who might serve as the best example of professional golf's 2024 major championship headache.
Niemann, who reached the cusp of golf's elite company last spring by dominating game's best players over the heralded Riviera Country Club course last spring, has been forced to spend the holiday season trying to play his way into next year's major fields.
The talented, 25-year-old Chilean has been a fixture at the major-championship level in recent years, playing in all four majors each of the last three years. He has made the cut in 10 of those 12 championships, with his best finish a T16 at the Masters last April.
Niemann forced his way into the group expected to contend in majors with a wire-to-wire, two-shot victory in the 2022 Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club. He posted back-to-back 63s in the first two rounds and beat a field that saw Collin Morikawa, Cameron Young, Adam Scott, Viktor Hovland, Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy and Max Homa finish among the top 10. The victory was Niemann's second on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a new perspective on his possibilities.
"After the first win it took awhile to get, I was really close in three second places, two playoffs, and to finally get it done after those three second places it feels amazing and obviously winning at Riviera of how big that tournament is, all the players that were playing that year, it made me prove a lot of things and knowing that I winning there I think you can win anywhere," Niemann said in a press conference the following week.
"So I think that's going to be a good boost of more confidence for what is coming and, yeah, I mean, if I keep playing the way I played that week I know I could be on the top."
Niemann reached No. 15 on the Official World Golf Rankings and spent most of 2022 ranking in the top 20. However, his decision to jump to the LIV Tour in the summer of 2022 has adversely affected his world ranking because the tour's 54-hole format and limited fields have kept the circuit from qualifying for world ranking points.
The Masters Tournament, Open Championship and U.S. Open each hold open berths in their fields for players ranked in the OWGR's top 50. Because his ranking fell to 87th on the OWGR, Niemann found himself finishing up 2023 without having earned a berth in the 2024 major championships.
LIV's other stars - Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson - have not faced that problem yet because they've each won a major in the last five years.
So, in November, Niemann set out for Australia to play in the Fortinet Australian PGA Championship and the ISPS Handa Australian Open in hopes of regaining a spot in the top 50. Both tournaments were part of the DP World Tour and the PGA Tour of Australasia, offered OWGR points, and were open to players on the LIV Tour.
After a fifth-place finish in the Australian PGA, Niemann won the Australian Open with an eagle on the second playoff, defeating Rikuya Hoshino of Japan.
When the OWGR updated its list on Monday, Niemann jumped from 87th to No. 59.
“Not even winning both tournaments would have been enough to get into the top 50 and the majors,” Niemann said in a Golf Digest report. “But the Australian Open such a good tournament, so it was easy to make my decision to come here and play some golf. This means a lot.”
The good news about Niemann's victory was that the Australian Open is part of the R&A's Open Qualifying Series. The top three on the tournament's leaderboard - not already exempt - earned berths in the field for the 152nd Open at Royal Troon next year. Earning spots were Niemann, Hoshino and Adam Scott.
“I'm still not sure how I’ll play all the majors [in 2024] but at least I know for sure I'm in the Open, which is nice,” Niemann said.
Niemann will still have chances in early 2024 to move back into the OWGR's top 50 if he plays in Asian Tour events.
“Yeah, it is unfortunate, I think I should be playing those tournaments,” Niemann said of the majors. “I know I have the game to win one of the majors. It is what it is; I took this challenge (joining LIV) knowing that I was not going to be (assured of playing) in the majors, so I was going to go out there and try to (earn) my spot. That was my mentality of coming to Australia.”
Hoshino, who finished second in both the Australian PGA and the Australian Open, will play in his fifth Open Championship. He has posted 11 top-10s world-wide in 2022-23 and was second on the Japan Tour's Order of Merit in 2022. He is currently ranked 92nd on the OWGR, and has reached as high as No. 63 earlier in his career.
Scott, the 2013 Masters Champion with 31 wins world-wide, will make his 24th consecutive appearance at the Open Championship. He led the 2012 Open by four shots with four holes to play, only to bogey each of the final four holes and lose by one shot to Ernie Els. Scott figures to earn a berth in the U.S. Open field based on being ranked No. 44 on the OWGR.
Also qualifying for the Open Championship through the Open Qualifying Series were Dean Burmester, Darren Fichardt and Dan Bradbury, who finished 1, 2, 3 in the Joburg Open, the Open Qualifying Series first event for 2024, which was played in South Africa in November.
Burmester, who also plays on the LIV Tour, followed up his Joburg Open victory with a victory in the Investec South African Open. The 34-year-old South African has jumped from 154th to No. 55 on the OWGR.
Fichardt has won 15 times on South Africa's Sunshine Tour and has five victories on Europe's DP World Tour. Currently ranked No. 346, the 48-year-old South African has been competing primarily on the European Challenger Tour, where he won the Le Vaudreuil Golf Challenge by two shots in July. Fichardt will be playing in his first Open Championship since 2017, and his eighth overall.
Bradbury, who was the defending champion at the Joburg Open, has posted three top-six finishes in his last six DP World Tour starts, and had two other top-10 finishes in 2023. The 24-year-old Englishman has risen from No. 500 to 150th on the OWGR in 2023. Bradbury will be playing in his second consecutive Open Championship, having missed the cut by four shots last year, his first appearance in a major.
The Masters and Open Championship include players ranked in the OWGR's Top 50 at year's end, while the U.S. Open offers exemptions into its field to the Top 60 players on the OWGR the week three weeks prior to the championship.