By winning the 2018 Latin America Amateur Championship (LAAC) at Prince of Wales Country Club in Santiago, Chile, 19-year-old Joaquin Niemann showed why he is the top-ranked amateur in the world right in his hometown. First, he followed a rather dismal opening round of 74 in this South American capital that left him six shots off the lead with a second-round 64 that put him right back in contention. Then he put on an even better performance on the fourth and final day of play with a Johnny Miller-esque 63 that broke open what had been a tight and very hotly contested championship – and gave Niemann an 11-under-par score of 273 and a five-shot win over Mexico’s Alvaro Ortiz.
Daniel Gurtner of Guatemala, Jaime Lopez Rivarola of Argentina and Chilean Gabriel Morgan Birke tied for third at five-under, while Camilo Aguado of Colombia was sixth. Defending champion Toto Gana, also of Chile, ended up T7 at two under. All told, a total of 105 players from 27 countries competed with 52 of those making the cut, which fell at eight over par.
Nobody competed better than the golfers from Chile, and they have now won three of the first four LAACs, and with 10 players from that nation making the cut in this year’s edition of the championship, and five finishing in the top 20, they are proving themselves to be a real power in the amateur game in the region.
Niemann is clearly the most powerful of them all, with a steady game and a quietly confident demeanor that helped him win nine tournaments last year, including four professional events in Chile. The slender, dark-haired teen also qualified for the U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin and the U.S. Amateur at Riviera and Bel-Air in Los Angeles after having made a strong bid to capture the 2017 LAAC. But Niemann lost that tournament in a three-way, sudden death playoff with Ortiz and his good friend Gana, who prevailed on the second hole.
This time, there was no playoff. The final round started off extremely tight, with a dozen players within a few shots of each other. But then Niemann went on his roll. An eagle on the par 4 eighth hole began a streak in which Niemann played holes No. 8-14 in seven under par and elicited some Masters-like roars from the partisan crowd every time one of his putts fell. By the time he stepped to the 15th tee, Niemann stood at 11 under, and the championship was all but over. He then parred the final four holes and signed for a 63.
“When I got to the 18th green and had only a short putt for par, I was very happy,” Niemann said. “It felt really good to be there, and to be able to celebrate with the people who were walking with me.”
Unfortunately, Ortiz didn’t feel much like celebrating after being runner-up for the second year in a row. And he confessed to being disappointed that his four under-par rounds were not enough to best Niemann.
“It’s not easy,” Ortiz said. “It is not easy at all. But I feel that I played really well, and there are lots of positives I can take away from this week. Joaquin just played better, and I take my hat off to him.”
Niemann tied Ortiz for second at the 2017 LAAC, so he, too, knows what it is like to just miss. But this year, he came up big, and as a result the best amateur golfer in the world is Augusta-bound. The Chilean will also receive exemptions into the The Amateur Championship at Royal Aberdeen and the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach along with any other 2018 USGA amateur championships for which he is eligible. And both Niemann and Ortiz are exempt into the Open Qualifying Series - Final Qualifying for The 147th Open at Carnosutie and the sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open Championship at Shinnecock Hills.