Talk of a breakaway Saudi golf tour threatened to overwhelm the PGA Tour’s stop at Riviera this week, but Joaquin Niemann helped quash it
It was a magical scene. An enormous crowd surrounding Riviera’s amphitheater 18th green as three men, all under the age of 25, walked together in the final group on Sunday to close out a week that almost divided the PGA Tour but only brought it closer together.
Joaquin Niemann won his second career title, tapping in for par to finish the Genesis Invitational at 19-under. He went wire-to-wire becoming the first player to hold the lead after all four rounds since the late, great golf pioneer Charlie Sifford in 1969. He flirted with a tournament scoring record that had stood for 37 years, holding off Cameron Young and Collin Morikawa by two shots. But all of that threatened to be overshadowed by talk that had nothing to do with this tournament.
The Super Golf League, with deep pockets backed by Saudi oil money, was threatening to rip away the top players from the PGA Tour. Each player had to take a side, to either stick with the PGA or risk getting banned by taking the money. Some, like Rory McIlroy, Morikawa, and World No. 1 Jon Rahm, said no right away.
Others, notably Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson, appeared ready to take the money and run. DeChambeau was reportedly offered $135 million, more than five times his career earnings on the PGA Tour. Kramer Hickock revealed on the Stripe Show Podcast last week he knew of at least 17 players who were preparing to abandon the PGA Tour.
Niemann’s magical week shows what only the PGA Tour can deliver
The Genesis Invitational showed what they would be missing. There is the history that only the PGA Tour can provide. Niemann joined a list of winners at Riviera that includes Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Tom Watson, and Phil Mickelson (but not, notably, Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods). Riviera is where Ben Hogan won the 1948 U.S. Open, earning the course the moniker of “Hogan’s Alley.” It’s where Woods made his PGA Tour debut as a 16-year-old in 1992. No iconic venue like it would’ve threatened its relationship with the tour by hosting an SGL tournament.
There is the youth that is currently dominating the tour. The top players in the world have never been younger, more talented, and more primed to make their mark on golf history. The place where they can do that is on the PGA Tour. Seven of the top-30 players are 25 or younger. Niemann is 23, a former top-ranked amateur, and now a two-time champion. Young is 24 and was making just his 13th career start. Viktor Hovland, in the final group with them, is 24 and already has three wins. Morikawa, who could’ve become No. 1 in the world with a win, is 25.
Somebody was noticing what was happening at Riviera this weekend. First Dustin Johnson, who had remained ambivalent about whether he was going to jump to the Saudi league, announced he was staying. Then came the fatal blow to whatever hope Greg Norman had of challenging the PGA Tour: DeChambeau released a statement announcing his intention to keep competing against the game’s best players. Norman’s star attraction was now taken away.
Niemann didn’t want to talk about the SGL, leaving it to McIlroy to pick up the knife and plunge it straight into the heart of the breakaway league.
“Who’s left? Who’s left to go? I mean, there’s no one. It’s dead in the water in my opinion. I just can’t see any reason why anyone would go,” McIlroy said after his 10th-place finish this week.
“Like I’ve always reiterated, I feel like this is the best place to play golf if you’re an elite professional golfer. I was really glad to see DJ and Bryson put out those statements this week. We all want to play against the best players in the world and they’re certainly two of the best players in the world and it’s nice to know that they’re committed to playing here and committed to making this the best tour in the world.”
Niemann was handed his new trophy on Sunday by Woods, the tournament’s host. The Chilean wasn’t even born when Woods won his first major championship. But there they were, two players separated by a generation sharing a stage at one of the game’s historic courses. It’s a scene that can only happen on the PGA Tour.