Thursday, January 28, 2021

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Garcia turns from Niemann rival to cheerleader

HONOLULU, Hawaii – There was a point during the final round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions last week when Sergio Garcia went from Joaquin Niemann’s competitor to his personal cheerleader.

Garcia had just watched the young Chilean scorch the front nine of the Plantation Course at Kapalua in 6 under par. Garcia had fallen well off the pace, and while he continued to try to finish as high as possible, he was clearly now trying to urge his young friend to the finish.

History shows that Niemann fell to Harris English in a playoff – left to rue an inability to birdie the par-5 15th and the par-5 18th both in regulation and in sudden death. Garcia stayed close throughout the wait before the playoff and then was right there watching during it.

“Obviously we’re good friends. And he played amazing, so I was definitely cheering him on hard on the back nine to see if he could get the victory,” Garcia said.

While the pair have played numerous practice rounds with each other – with plenty of competitive edge thrown into those – last Sunday was actually the first time the two were paired together in a proper tournament round.

“I knew that my chances of winning were pretty much gone. His weren’t. He was playing well, and he was rolling some good putts in here and there,” Garcia continued. “It was great for me to have the possibility of being there, seeing everything happen firsthand to a friend of mine, and trying to wish him or push him hard to get his second win.”

Niemann, who won the 2019-20 season-opening Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, certainly felt the support. Throughout the round Garcia kept him light and loose, conversing in Spanish and English, and seemingly always smiling despite having lost his own chance to win.

“For me, it’s more like he’s a friend (rather than mentor) and being able to play with him on the course and be able to enjoy the round more, it looked more like a friend round instead of a competitive round,” the 22-year-old Niemann said.

“It was nice to have him, especially on the back nine where I needed some motivation and needed to make some more birdies. Obviously, he was playing his own tournament, too, but he was supporting me a lot and it was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I was a little bit short of victory.”

Garcia first met Niemann when the latter won the 2016 Sergio and Angela Garcia Foundation Junior Championship – an American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) event – in Texas. He defended the title a year later and a friendship has grown from there.

“He’s good fun. We’ve had a very good connection since we met each other. He was a lot younger and he was a lot shyer but he’s definitely loosening up. We’ve built a good relationship, and everybody knows that I love to have friends and make friends on TOUR,” Garcia says.

“That doesn’t mean that when we’re playing, I’m not trying to play well or beat him… I want him to do well but I want myself to do better. That’s the way I always look at it. And at the end of the day, I feel like when you stop playing golf, people start going away, and only if you’ve made good friends, then you have people around you.

“It’s more important to have five or six really good friends that you can make on TOUR than maybe not having them and winning a couple extra tournaments.”

The friendship will once again be on show at Waialae Country Club where the pair are grouped together with Hideki Matsuyama over the opening two rounds of the Sony Open in Hawaii.

“It’s going to be fun playing with Sergio again for another two more days and hopefully be up there on the weekend,” Niemann said. “I would love to see one day the two of us playing for the tournament (down the stretch). It would be fun.”

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