Season Opener on the Greg Norman Designed Mayakoba Golf Course
By Len Ziehm
Joaquin Niemann poses with the trophy after winning the LIV Golf Mayakoba at El Camaleon at Mayakoba on Feb 04, 2024 in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. (Photo by Charles Laberge/LIV Golf)
The controversial LIV Golf League has only 14 tournaments in its third season, but the first one of 2024 couldn’t have gone any better for the fledgling circuit.
LIV’s debut in Mexico went head-to-head with the PGA Tour’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which underwent a major format change, was elevated to a “signature” event for the first time and couldn’t shake its history of challenging weather.
Both events featured great individual rounds. Joaquin Niemann shot 59 – the second sub-60 round in LIV history – in the opening round at Mayakoba, a former PGA Tour host venue. Reigning U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark set the Pebble Beach course record with a 60 in the third round in California. Both won on Sunday, but there the similarity ends.
Captain Jon Rahm of Legion XIII and Captain Joaquin Niemann of Torque GC warm up during day three of the LIV Golf Mayakoba at El Camaleon at Mayakoba on Feb 04, 2024 in Playa del Carmen. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez via Getty Images)
LIV had all the drama, as Clark didn’t hit another shot. A threatening weather forecast led PGA Tour officials to eliminate Sunday’s final round, so both events were 54-hole tests this time. LIV had Sunday television time all to itself. Most of the national golf media didn’t take much note of it, focusing more on the travails at Pebble Beach, but the ones that did missed out on an extraordinarily captivating wrap-up in Mexico.
Niemann, a 25-year-old from Chile, had a particularly interesting Sunday. After arriving at the course, he was told by tournament officials that he’d been assessed a two-stroke penalty for taking an “improper” drop the day before. (Niemann was entitled to a drop when his ball stopped on a cart path, but he took two club lengths of relief and was entitled to only one.) That turned his Saturday 70 to a 72 and tightened up the individual race considerably. It brought several other players into contention, most notably Spain’s Sergio Garcia and Jon Rahm.
Reigning Masters champion Rahm was LIV’s major roster acquisition in the offseason and he didn’t disappoint. Rahm made five birdies in his first seven holes on Friday but couldn’t keep up with Niemann. He got close again on Sunday before finishing bogey-bogey yet did have some consolation. His new Legion XIII team, put together less than a week before the tournament, captured the team title. Team victories are celebrated in style at LIV events.
Norman salutes Captain Joaquin Niemann of Torque GC during day three of the LIV Golf Invitational – Mayakoba at El Camaleon at Mayakoba on Feb 04, 2024 in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez via Getty Images)
In a format change for 2024, LIV counts three scores per team in the first two days of a tournament and all four in the final round. Rahm’s 70 was the highest final round score on his team as Tyrrell Hatton shot 64, Kieran Vincent 69 and Caleb Surratt 67.
Surratt, 19, was a story by himself. He was playing in his first professional tournament after leaving his dormitory room at the University of Tennessee just a few days ago.
The PGA and DP World tours don’t have team competition, but Rahm bought into it in his first LIV start.
“It was very nice in a day in which in any normal tournament I would have been upset at my finish to actually have something to celebrate,” said Rahm. “This is one of the reasons why I decided to transition.”
What was “normal” for Rahm is no longer normal on the LIV circuit, and neither was Sunday’s individual battle.
Niemann and Garcia wound up in a playoff for the title, and that created a story worth telling. Garcia, 43, was Niemann’s boyhood hero. Only 25, Niemann is going to be a prominent player in the game – and not just on the LIV circuit. Late last year he won the Australian Open, and that earned him a place on the DP World Tour. Membership on that circuit gave him a place in the Dubai Desert Classic two weeks ago, and he finished fourth there.
Though the now Official World Golf Rankings still haven’t adequately recognized good play by LIV members, Niemann is now eligible for the British Open and will probably get into the PGA Championship as well. Winning $4 million at Mayakoba was nice, but the way he did it will be hard to forget by anyone with even a passing interest in professional golf. The playoff with Garcia went on until daylight was gone and only the light of the 18th hole scoreboard was available to keep it going.
Captain Joaquin Niemann of Torque GC celebrates the victory at the LIV Golf Mayakoba at El Camaleon at Mayakoba on Feb 04, 2024 in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez via Getty Images)
Niemann and Garcia made pars on the first three playoff holes, all on No. 18. Faced with the option of returning on Monday, they agreed to play it one more time even in what Niemann called “super darkness.” Niemann won it with a birdie putt from the back of the green.
Now the LIV players are headed for their second tournament in Las Vegas while the PGA Tour goes to Arizona for the always-raucous WM Phoenix Open. Both will be hard to match the excitement produced at Mayakoba.
Len Ziehm is the former golf reporter/columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. During his career at the Sun-Times, Len covered 27 U.S. Opens, 11 Masters, 17 PGA Championships, four U.S. Women’s Opens and the last 34 Western Opens in addition to a heavy load of Chicago area events. Len is a lifetime member of the Golf Writers Association of America (GWAA) and sits on the Advisory Board of the International Network of Golf (ING). He currently co-hosts ‘Golfers on Golf Radio’ 750-AM in Chicago. Len’s website can be found at LenZiehmOnGolf.com.