Niemann opens with 66 to lead at Kapalua

KAPALUA, Hawaii — Fresh off his Presidents Cup debut, Joaquin Niemann of Chile brought fresh confidence and plenty of form to Maui by opening the year with a 7-under 66 for a one-shot lead over Justin Thomas after the opening round Thursday at the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Niemann is one of 15 first-time winners on the PGA Tour last year who are playing the rejuvenated Plantation Course at Kapalua for the first time. He knew his way around just fine in weather that might be as good as it gets all week.

He missed only one green and saved par. After a 30-foot birdie on No. 4, which he called his best shot of the day, his other six birdies were all from 10 feet or closer.

Thomas, who won at Kapalua three years ago, played bogey-free and made five birdies over his last eight holes for a 67. Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler were at 68, with defending champion Xander Schauffele, Jon Rahm and Patrick Cantlay among those another shot back.

Only nine players in the 34-man field of PGA Tour winners failed to shoot par or better.

Niemann didn’t win a match at Royal Melbourne — he went 0-3-1, twice facing two of the best U.S. partnerships — but thrived on the stage under International captain Ernie Els.

“The Presidents Cup was one of my best experiences since I turned pro,” he said. “I shared a lot of moments with the best players in the world. I got Ernie as a captain. That is just awesome. I think that week was really special for me. He told me that it’s going to be really helpful for my career, for my future.”

It appeared to help in the first round of the new year, and Niemann had plenty of company.

Warm sunshine and moderate wind for these parts also helped. The wind was reasonable enough for the tour to use all the new back tees that were part of the refinement project.

Kapalua still provided its usual punishment for missed shots, however.

Dustin Johnson, a two-time winner at Kapalua, made six birdies and an eagle. That was barely enough to offset his double bogey on the par-5 ninth and four other bogeys, most of them because of wild tee shots. He had to reload on No. 9. He went into the waist-high grass left of the 12th, right of the 14th and had only seven pars. That added to a 72.

Cantlay had few complaints after a 69. His only mistake was a tee shot into the weeds right of the third hole for a double bogey. He made a 30-foot eagle putt two holes later and didn’t drop a shot the rest of the way.

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