"Wow, that is dirty" was the phrase used on Thursday's telecast to describe one of Joaquin Niemann's chip shots in the first round of the 2022 AT&T Byron Nelson. Ultimately signing for a 5-under 67 in Round 1, Niemann backed things up Friday morning with a mistake-free 7-under 65 -- good for a 12-under total. Now, Niemann finds himself in a tie for fifth and only three strokes off the pace set by Ryan Palmer as the afternoon wave begins the second round.
"You know that before start of the week ... this is one of those courses that they score pretty low, so you kind of have that mindset a little bit before the tournament," said Niemann. "I know 12 under was really impressive, but yeah, you know they're going to go pretty low during four days."
While birdies are a prerequisite in low-scoring events, avoiding bogeys may hold equal importance. A dropped shot will see a player's name leapfrogged on the leaderboard, and few have done better than Niemann in that respect. Carding only one bogey through his first 36 holes, Niemann is getting up and down at a 92% clip at TPC Craig Ranch. Top 10 in this category, it is worth noting the young Chilean's short game hasn't always been so clean. His ranking around the green has taken a dramatic step forward this season when compared to his previous three years:
- 2022: 12
- 2021: T138
- 2020: T152
- 2019: 102
That part of his game was a liability until this season. Niemann's off-the-tee presence and streaky iron play were capable of propelling him into contention a few times each year, but around the green he was often searching for answers. 2021 saw Niemann finish runner-up on three occasions, and had he performed up to his current standard, the two-time winner on the PGA Tour would be at least a four-time victor.
I understand golf doesn't work this way -- growing pains are part of the process -- but as a thought exercise, let's pretend it does. What would Niemann's résumé look like if he averaged +1.86 strokes gained around the green per tournament? That's the current figure the 23-year-old boasts as he ranks 12th in said category on the PGA Tour this season (before the start of the AT&T Byron Nelson).
|Tournament||Result||SG: ARG||Result w/ +1.86 SG: ARG|
2018 Texas Open
2018 Memorial Tournament
2018 Greenbrier Classic
2019 John Deere Classic
2019 Wyndham Championship
2021 Tournament of Champions
2021 Sony Open
2021 Honda Classic
2021 Wells Fargo Championship
2021 PGA Championship
2021 Rocket Mortgage Classic
It's not perfect math, and I am sure 2018 Memorial winner Bryson DeChambeau would find flaws in it, but that is not the point. This is simply to illustrate how good Niemann is and will become with the addition of an around-the-green presence currently better than that of each top-10 player in the Official World Golf Rankings.
Niemann is enjoying a career season because of his short game, not in spite of it, as displayed in his triumph at the Genesis Invitational, where he posted +5.04 strokes gained around the green. In a major championship-caliber field on a major championship-type venue, this sort of improvement has the potential to be a difference-maker at not only the AT&T Byron Nelson, but at next week's 2022 PGA Championship.
"You have to work the ball quite a bit, you have to. You really, really have to be good around the greens. You can't fake your way around it," said Justin Thomas after his scouting trip to Southern Hills earlier this week. "And it's tough to chip. I mean, the balls roll off the green, they go pretty far away. You get some grainy, elevated greens to where it's difficult to get the ball around the hole and over the course of the round in a tournament that can be quite a few shots. And the person I think that does that the best is going to have the best chance of winning."
If you told Niemann this last year, there's a good chance some doubts would have crept into the back of his mind. However, the aspect of his game which held him back from seriously contending at Kiawah Island may be the reason he finds himself with an opportunity for his first major title at Southern Hills.