Niemann stays on top as the major champs can't keep up in LA

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Joaquin Niemann, of Chile, hits out of the greenside bunker on the second hole during the third round of the Genesis Invitational golf tournament at Riviera Country Club, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)

LOS ANGELES – The tee shot was close to perfect, staying on the 10th green at Riviera and just left of the flag for the longest time until it trickled off the back. Joaquin Niemann was in no mood to complain.

He holed the putt from just over 20 feet for eagle, and at that moment Saturday in the Genesis Invitational, the 23-year-old from Chile was in a place no one had ever been on the fabled course off Sunset Boulevard.

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Niemann was 21-under par. Lanny Wadkins never got there in 1985 when he set the 72-hole scoring record, the oldest such record on the PGA Tour. Dustin Johnson didn't get there where he won big in 2017.

Now it's a matter of Niemann getting the prize that matters. He will try to become the first wire-to-wire winner of the tournament since Charlie Sifford in 1969.

Niemann didn't hit another fairway the rest of the third round, dropped two shots and still managed a 3-under 68 that gave him a three-shot lead over Cameron Young.

Niemann was at 19-under 194, breaking by two shots the record last matched by Justin Thomas in 2019.

“I’m having the best time of my life right now,” Niemann said. “I just try to keep it calm, but yeah, I’m enjoying it a lot and I just can’t wait to have a good day tomorrow.”

That wouldn't bode well for those chasing him.

Young showed plenty of moxie for a 24-year-old PGA Tour rookie in only his 12th start on the PGA Tour. Even with Niemann playing so well, Young stayed with him for the longest time. Trailing by two, he caught a plugged lie in the bunker in front of the par-3 16th, took two shots to get out and made double bogey. A birdie on the par-5 17th gave him a 69.

He was looking at leaderboards and wasn't all that comfortable with what he saw, even with Young's name in the second spot.

“It's hard not to notice when you look at him running away from everybody,” Young said. “He was 5 under through 10 when he made 2. At 21 under with an eight- or whatever-shot lead over third? Honestly, I was playing OK ... and he was running away from me.”

Joining them in the final group will be 24-year-old Viktor Hovland, who had eight birdies in his round of 65. That only got the Norwegian within six shots of Niemann.

“It’s a little frustrating because 7 under through 11 holes and I had hardly gained any momentum, or I was peeking a little closer but I was still pretty far behind,” Hovland said. “If they just keep playing the way they do, there’s not much I can do. Should have played better the first day. All I can do is just keep playing like I am and we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

Niemann was poised to win for the second time on the PGA Tour and needed only one more round in the 60s to break the tournament scoring record of 20-under 264 that Wadkins set in 1985.

Thomas had said there was a long way to go when he started five shots behind with 36 holes ahead of them. He started with a birdie and then made 10 straight pars before a pair of bogeys that sent him and other past major champions going in the wrong direction.

Thomas birdied his last two holes for a 70. He was seven behind. Adam Scott opened with two birdies until he lost momentum and shot 73 to fall 10 shots behind. Ditto for Jordan Spieth, who had only one birdie in his round of 73 to fade from contention.

The final group Sunday will feature three players from three continents who were born after tournament host Tiger Woods won his first Masters in 1997.

Niemann had a chance to build a big league until his driver betrayed him down the stretch. He twice couldn't get within 60 yards of the green after bad drives to the right and took bogey. He finished with a beautiful fade around the edges of the eucalyptus trees to the back of the green and a chip with perfect pace to save par on the 18th.

For a tournament stacked with 10 of the top 10 players in the world, the one leading the charge is Niemann, who is just outside the top 30 and whose only win was at The Greenbrier in the fall of 2019.

This is only the third time he has had at least a share of the 54-hole lead. He converted one of them into his Greenbrier win, and the other time he lost in a playoff last summer at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Young was a runner-up in Mississippi last fall, and he played with remarkable poise amid high-profile company while trying to keep in range of Niemann.

“I’m still right there, I’ve only got one guy ahead of me,” Young said. “He’s a great player and I know he’s playing really well, but you just never know what can happen.”


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