ATLANTA — On Sunday morning, those near the top of the Tour Championship leader board had $15 million on their mind. For the man on the bottom, however, the magic number was 1 hour and 59 minutes.
That’s how long it took Kevin Na to play his final round at the 2016 Tour Championship, which is the fastest anyone’s gotten it around East Lake. (Or, at least the fastest since the tour has been measuring such things). It’s not the fastest round on record for the PGA Tour—that belongs to Wesley Bryan, who shot 69 in 1 hour 28 minutes at the 2017 BMW Championship at Conway Farms.
Joaquin Niemann and caddie Gary Mathews knew that mark was out of reach, for undulating East Lake is no easy walk, and especially not on a hot and humid late-summer day. But they also knew they would be playing alone, the initial field of 30 cut to an odd number when Brooks Koepka withdrew on Saturday with a wrist injury. And Niemann knew he didn’t have his best stuff, and it’s been a long season, so why not have a little fun at the end of it and get some bragging rights over Na in the process?
Mathews emptied out the bag in preparation; there were three balls instead of the usual nine, the training aids were left at home, as was the rain gear and umbrella. Breakfast was light, on-course deliberations were minimal.
In the end, the mission was accomplished. The 22-year-old Niemann hustled hard throughout his back nine to play his final round at the Tour Championship in 1 hour 53 minutes. On the 18th green, after Niemann two-putted for par and a two-over 72, Mathews fell to the ground in (semi-mock) exhaustion. Despite finishing last among those who completed 72 holes this week, Niemann will still collect a $405,000 bonus for finishing 29th in the FedEx Cup.
“I didn’t know how fast I could play 18 holes, but on the front nine, I decided to play quick but not like crazy quick, not like rushing and hurrying up,” Niemann said. “But then they told me I did like just over an hour, I was like, ‘ah, I’m just going to rush it and try to break the record.’ It was pretty good, the back nine.”
Niemann admitted that he’d probably have abandoned the record-chasing had he played the front nine in a few under par. But after a double-bogey 6 on the par-4 eighth, Niemann went full DGAF-mode.
“When he made double on 8,” Mathews said, “it felt like it took us 20 minutes to play that hole. And we were walking up to 10, and the guy that helps us out in the caddie area there said, ‘You’re at 1:03.’ So we were flying for nine holes.”
On the 10th tee, he informed his walking scorers—two 17-year-old kids—that the last nine holes would be a hustle-fest. He played his final side of the season in 47 minutes and shot even-par 35, including a birdie on the intimidating par-3 15th over water.
The Atlanta crowd got a major kick from the image of Niemann, who is rail-thin, jogging ahead of Mathews, who is not rail-thin. Yet not everyone was pleased.
“Man, if he had taken his time today and shot 64, he might have made another couple hundred grand,” said Paul Azinger on the NBC broadcast, his tone not sounding as if tongue was in cheek. “But now he’s got a meaningless record and he is hurting … hope that was fun for him.”
It’s only partially true. Had Niemann shot that six-under round—which, he said, was essentially impossible with the form he was in this week—he’d finished somewhere around 20th, which comes with a $505,000 check. At the risk of sounding insensitive, perhaps $100,000 isn’t quite so important to a 22-year-old who’s made nearly $4 million this season and $9.5 million in his young PGA Tour career, to say nothing of endorsements.
It wasn’t until after his round, in the scoring tent, that Niemann second-guessed his decision. PGA Tour chief of tournaments and competition Andy Pazder greeted him there with a stern look on his face. He told Niemann that his antics had disrespected the professional game, the Tour Championship, and that he would be fined $10,000.
“I look at him like, I was burning inside,” Niemann said. “I was going to say something and he’s like, ‘all right, forgive me. Before you say something, I was just kidding.’
“I was like, ‘Oh, I hate you.’ He gave me a really hard time.”