GRANITEVILLE, South Carolina — They come from two continents separated by 7,000 miles. Chile’s Joaquin Niemann is a veteran playing at Sage Valley for the third time, while Australia’s Cameron John is a rookie. Yet, both opened with 5-under 67s to share the lead at the 2017 Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club.
Niemann is the best known of the two, the No. 2 ranked junior according to the World Amateur Golf Ranking. Roughly three months after losing a 3-person playoff in the Latin America Amateur Championship – and the Masters berth that comes with it -- Niemann is in the Augusta, Georgia area.
He’s actually been here for a while. Niemann soothed the sting of his near Masters miss in the Latin American Amateur by following his best friend and countryman – Toto Gana -- to Augusta National.
His accompaniment of Gana to the Masters was a therapeutic, but tough to know the life-altering Masters exemption was nearly his.
“I’ll take another chance next year, so until then, I’ll be patient and wait my turn,” said Niemann.
Niemann is doing just that, as his attention is now squarely on the Junior Invitational, which he is playing for the third time.
He birdied “Redbud,” Sage Valley’s opening hole, as a solid drive set up a 130-yard wedge to six feet. Niemann converted the birdie and it sparked a memorable day.
“I played really, really good golf,” Niemann recollected. “That birdie on the first hole was a big help. I enjoy this golf course, but last year, I did not play well, so that gave me lots of motivation.”
Niemann played bogey-free golf and feasted on Sage Valley’s four par-5s, each of which he birdied to account for the majority of his red numbers. His hard-charging 20-footer on No. 15, Sage Valley’s final par 5, was his shot of the day.
John is not ranked in the top 10 like his co-leader. At #141, he’s yet to crack the WAGR’s top 100.
But John has visited the winner’s circle twice recently to gain his own momentum. He won the 2017 Australian Boys Amateur Championship last week, and last summer, he claimed the 2016 Carrick Neil Scottish Strokeplay.
Coming all the way from Australia, John only played one practice round and he did not play well in his first tour of Sage Valley. But a fortuitous fitting session with TaylorMade put him back on track.
“I hit 12 of 14 fairways, and I hit it a bit longer than I usually do,” said John of his time well spent with TaylorMade. “I pulled more wedges than 7 irons today, which I am not used to. That helped.”
John opened with three pars, then tipped the scales with 6 birdies and a bogey over his next 12 holes. He then closed with a trio of solid pars to share the lead.
Kaito Onishi (68) of Japan is one shot back and alone in third place. Four of Onishi’s six birdies on Thursday came on Sage Valley’s outward 9.
Brandon Gillis of Nashua, New Hampshire, Cole Hammer of Houston, Texas and France’s Adrien Pendaries are tied for fourth after carding opening 70s.
Defending Champion, Austin Eckroat of Edmond, Oklahoma, opened with a one-under, 71. He is four shots off the pace. He’s attempting to become the Junior Invitational’s first repeat Champion.
Chris Nowak, PGA HOPE National Coordinator and a retired United States Marine, joined Anna Freeman of the First Tee-Aiken and Chandler Teske of the First Tee-Augusta in striking early-morning ceremonial tee shots to begin the 2017 Junior Invitational.
Participating in the ceremonial tee shot for a second consecutive year, Nowak personifies the burgeoning partnership between PGA REACH and the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, which reflects the PGA of America’s overall continued commitment to junior golf at every level.
The 54-hole Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club is widely recognized as one of the premier junior tournaments in the world. The prestigious event attracts many of the game’s top-ranked junior golfers on an annual basis.