LOS ANGELES — Joaquin Niemann had an idea how Riviera was playing Thursday when he saw no one from the morning draw posting better than a 5-under 66.
He hit the ball so well in the Genesis Invitational that he didn’t even bother paying attention to anyone else. When his round ended, Niemann had an 8-under 63 to match the lowest score for the opening round at Riviera and build a three-shot lead.
“Sometime I think about a score,” he said. “Today I was hitting it so good, I had fun just getting into the shot. I didn’t really think of the score. But then on 18 I was thinking about. I wanted to make birdie so bad. I wanted to to make one more.”
Niemann is the ninth player to open with a 63 at Riviera, a list that starts with Charlie Sifford in 1969 and was done most recently by J.B. Holmes in 2019. Four of the previous eight players to start with 63 went on to win.
“You always work to have these kind of days. You always know that you’re never going to have these days four days in a row. It’s a good way to start,” Niemann said. “I know it’s going to be different days during the week, so I’ve got to be ready for everything and have the best attitude for it.”
Jordan Spieth had seven birdies and joined a group at 66 that included Phoenix Open winner Scottie Scheffler and Max Homa, who had one of several big moments on the first tee.
It started with Tiger Woods, the tournament host to went from being a 15-time major champion to the starter on the first tee. He wanted to introduce Aaron Beverly, who received the Charlie Sifford exemption to play in the elite field. The tournament is celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the year Sifford – the first Black golfer to win on the PGA Tour – was born.
For Homa, it was a new experience on a familiar course. He grew up in Southern California and Riviera was the PGA Tour event he often attended. He had to fight back tears when he won last year. And he was a little nervous going to the tee and knowing he would be introduced as the defending champion.
“It was cool. I got a nice ovation,” Homa said. “And playing with two great guys, two of the best players of all time, added to that a little bit. But it was fun. I’ve been on this tee a million times watching and playing now, and to get to hear that was pretty special.”
He played with Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott, past winners at Riviera. Johnson has gone more than a year since his last win at the Saudi International, and it doesn’t appear that’s going to change. On the 10th hole, he went from fairway bunker to the back slope of greenside bunker, chipped it to a flatter lie, left the next one in the sand and made double bogey. He opened with a 73.
Collin Morikawa, another LA kid, and Justin Thomas were among those at 67. Even in ideal conditions – pleasant sunshine, very little wind – all but Niemann were held in check.
Half the field broke par.
That included Jon Rahm, the No. 1 player in the world, even if he had reason to believe his 69 felt much worse.
He was second in the field to Niemann in the statistical category that measures play from tee to green. Only four players had a worse time puting.
Rahm raised his arms in mock triumph when he made a 4-foot birdie on the par-4 eighth, his 17th hole of the round. It was the second-longest putt he made all day. The longest was on the next hole, when he made a 5-footer for par.
The tournament now has Woods as the host and has been awarded elevated status, meaning it has a $12 million purse and the winner gets a three-year exemption. Add that to Riviera and all its reverence, and it’s not surprise all 10 of the top 10 in the world are playing, along with 19 of the top 25 in the world ranking.
That doesn’t guarantee big-time winners. Woods, even in his best years, never won at Riviera. For someone like Spieth, it would be extra special given the location.
“If I could pick one non-major (or) Players Championship to win on the PGA Tour, it would be here,” Spieth said. “I love Riviera. I think it’s arguably … it’s in the conversation as the best golf course in the world.”
Spieth has one big win at Riviera, part of the Texas team that won the NCAA title in 2012. He looked as though he had a chance to take it lower than 66 until losing a little momentum with a pair of bogeys.
Scheffler is coming of his first win last week in the Phoenix Open, and he was more tired than usual, which is a good problem to have.
His round turned on the par-5 opening hole with a 7-iron to 2 feet for eagle, and he closed out his round with an approach to 4 feet on the ninth.