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Joaquin Niemann impresses in wire-to-wire triumph at Genesis Invitational

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A Genesis Invitational tournament that began with a first-shot salute to Charlie Sifford ended with a 23-year-old rising star from Chile matching a rare feat last accomplished by the trailblazing Sifford more than five decades ago.

Joaquin Niemann sank his mitts deep into the iconic Riviera Country Club course on Thursday and did not let go, shooting an even-par 71 on Sunday to fend off the late-charging Collin Morikawa and the pesky Cameron Young and become the first wire-to-wire winner at Riviera since Sifford in 1969.

With fans packing the natural amphitheater green on the 18th hole, Niemann tapped in for par for a two-shot victory over Morikawa, the La Cañada Flintridge native and second-ranked golfer in the world, and Young, a rookie vying for his first PGA win.

Niemann, who earned $2.16 million with his second career PGA Tour victory, pumped his right fist, hugged his caddie and hurled his ball into the crowd, the look on his face a mixture of joy and relief.

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“When I finished, it was like, ‘Hell yeah, it took forever, we’re finally done and I can have a smile on my face and just think about it like it was a fun day,’ ” said Niemann, whose 19-under-par score of 265 was one short of Lanny Wadkins’ course record 264 in 1985. “Oh my God, this weekend took forever. It felt like a month.”

The pressure on Niemann, the wiry 6-foot, 154-pounder with a slight bow-legged gait, to protect a big lead was self-induced, thanks to his three-day assault on Riviera.

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The tournament opened Thursday morning with Sacramento State golfer Aaron Beverly, playing on the Charlie Sifford exemption given annually to a golfer with a minority background, driving off the first tee, which was changed to No. 100 to honor Sifford, who would have turned 100 on June 2.

The first-tee starter was Tiger Woods, the 15-time major champion who was mentored by Sifford, who in 1967 became the first African-American to play on the PGA Tour. “He was the grandpa I never had,” Woods said.

Genesis Invitational winner Joaquin Niemann, right, shares a laugh with tournament host Tiger Woods during the tournament trophy presentation at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades on Sunday.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

From that point on, the tournament belonged to Niemann, who shot eight-under-par rounds of 63 on Thursday and Friday and a three-under-par 68 on Saturday to set a 54-hole Riviera scoring record and take a three-shot lead over Young into Sunday’s final round.

That cushion dwindled to one when Young, who missed birdie putts of seven feet on No. 3 and 10 feet on No. 5, made par on the 412-yard, par-four seventh to stay at 17 under and Niemann two-putted for bogey to fall to 18 under.

But the momentum shifted back to Niemann on the 436-yard, par-four eighth, where Young’s approach hit the firm green 12 feet in front of the pin and bounced past the hole and off the green, some 50 feet away. Young chipped to within 21 feet and two-putted for a bogey to fall to 16 under.

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Niemann hit a firm driver 333 yards into the fairway, a beautiful approach to within seven feet of the pin and nailed his putt for birdie to go to 19-under.

“I think No. 8 was big,” Niemann said. “After bogeying No. 7, I knew I needed to hit a good driver on No. 8 because it’s not an easy tee shot. I had been hitting my wedges so good this week that I knew if I hit in the fairway, I had a good chance to make birdie. I hit a great shot … and I knew it was my opportunity to come back a little stronger.”

Joaquin Niemann hits out of the rough on the 15th hole during the final round of the Genesis Invitational.

Joaquin Niemann hits out of the rough on the 15th hole during the final round of the Genesis Invitational.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

There were more anxious moments on the back nine. Niemann gained some breathing room when he chipped in from 46 feet for an eagle on No. 11 to go to 21 under and open a five-shot lead with seven holes to go. But bogeys on No. 14 and No. 15 dropped him back to 19 under.

Young, after blasting out of a fairway bunker on No. 15, then holed a spinning 130-yard pitch that bounced a few times on the green before making a quick right turn into the cup to go to 17 under. But Young hit into a greenside bunker on No. 16 and missed a 13-foot putt for par, the bogey dropping him to 16 under.

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“It kept me in it,” Young said of his long shot on No. 15. “You’re staring bogey in the face and to go to the next hole only two back, that’s a chance with three to play. And then I shanked one in the bunker.”

Morikawa posed as big a threat to Niemann as Young. Eight strokes back through six holes, Morikawa went on a tear, holing a 50-foot chip from the rough for birdie on No. 7, draining a 17-foot putt for birdie on No. 9 and holing a 90-foot wedge from the fairway for an eagle on No. 10 to go to 15 under.

Morikawa drained a 15-foot putt for birdie on No. 16 to go to 16 under and a seven-foot birdie putt on No. 17 to go to 17 under, but he just missed a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 18 that would have pulled him to within one stroke of the lead.

Niemann crushed his 319-yard drive down the middle of the 18th fairway, hit a pitching wedge to the green, 27 feet away from the hole, and two-putted for the win, with Woods, who served as tournament host, handing him with the trophy. Niemann is the second-youngest winner in Riviera history behind 21-year-old Harry Cooper in 1926.

“It’s the toughest tournament, I think, during the year,” Niemann said. “It’s got the best field, the best players are here, and that proves to myself that I can be competing with the top guys. I think it’s going to give me a lot of confidence for what is coming next.”

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