Joaquin Niemann lost the 2021 Tournament of Champions in a playoff to Harris English on Sunday, but his runner-up finish may have been a harbinger of things to come this year as the 22-year-old stud vies for a perception of his star power to reflect the reality of it.
Niemann has been a professional golfer for nearly three years now after he turned pro as a 19-year-old. He went on to earn special temporary membership on the PGA Tour in his fifth start after the 2018 Masters and his full card three starts later.
Again, he was six months from turning 20 at the time he earned his card, or two years younger than Matthew Wolff is right now. From there he won at the end of 2019, played on the 2019 International Presidents Cup team and found some terrific form at the very end of 2020, which he clearly carried into 2021.
It’s this meteoric rise at such a tender age that is part of the problem when it comes to perception with Niemann. Though he is younger than bigger names like Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa and Sungjae Im (and barely older than Wolff), he’s already played 73 PGA Tour events, nearly twice as many as Morikawa.
However, age matters. When Morikawa was 20, he was refining his game against lesser competition as he prepared for the professional ranks. When Niemann was 20, he was grinding out T30s against grown men just trying to get to the next week. Morikawa won a major at 23. Niemann won’t turn 23 for another 11 months. There is plenty of growing still to do.
On paper, the Tournament of Champions playoff loss was the best performance of Niemann’s career, slightly better than his win at the Greenbrier in 2019. It got him enough OWGR points to move to No. 31 in the world and set the table for what could be a coming-out party for him.
Golf is, as winner Harris English said on Sunday, a game that comes and goes. There are ups and downs, and nobody is exempt from that. Niemann’s career has gone in waves. He was playing at a top-25 clip back at the end of 2019 and has once again reached that level, according to Data Golf. What’s more interesting, though, is that if you look at the graphic below, Niemann’s most recent trough — through the middle of 2020 — was much higher than his previous (in the middle of 2019). That suggests that his floor is getting higher, and maybe the ceiling will be higher this time around as well.
Niemann is an absolute joy to watch. He speaks little — both on and off the course — and lets his astonishing ball flight do most of the talking. There’s work to be done with the short game, but from October 2019 to now, he’s been better from tee to green than golfers like Tommy Fleetwood, Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka, and yes, Matthew Wolff.
The career projections for Niemann are fascinating. Names like Jason Day, Adam Scott and Jon Rahm pop up. So too do names like Seung-Yul Noh, Robert Gamez and Bud Cauley.
So which of these paths will Niemann take? Time will tell, and this year will tell a lot. Has the PGA Tour revealed who he is through 73 starts, or does he have a ton of room to grow because he spent so much time on the PGA Tour as a teenager? To ask it another way, would Niemann have been winning everything he looked at as a 20-year-old if he went to Florida or Arizona State?
The numbers would suggest that Niemann has actually been better than Morikawa during his 19-, 20- and 21-year-old years, even when you account for the difference in competition (pros vs. college). That portends some pretty special 22-, 23- and 24-year-old years from Niemann. But numbers are just numbers. Morikawa has multiple wins and a major. That’s the next step for Niemann, one that could take place over the next 12 or 24 months.