Joaquin Niemann continued his assault on the Riviera Country Club golf course Friday, shooting his second straight eight-under-par 63 for a two-round score of 126 at the Genesis Invitational, shattering the previous 36-hole course record of 130 by four strokes.
The 23-year-old Chilean racked up seven birdies and one eagle to move to 16 under with his blistering morning round, two strokes ahead of PGA Tour rookie Cameron Young, who birdied nine holes in his bogey-free round of 62 on Friday and is two strokes back at 14 under.
Justin Thomas, ranked eighth in the World Golf Rankings, shot an afternoon round of 64 to move to within five strokes of Niemann at 11 under. Jordan Spieth and Adam Scott are tied for fourth place at nine under, and Collin Morikawa is in sixth place at eight under.
“Shooting 11 under, I would have thought that I would probably be leading, not five back,” Thomas said. “I mean, there’s no conditions that you see 16 under leading after two rounds here.
“I think the reason you see the scores is because of how firm it is or how firm it’s getting. So if you’re hitting the fairway and landing in the fairway, the ball’s rolling quite a bit to where you can bring the short clubs in.”
Scott, a 14-time PGA Tour winner, who shot rounds of 68 and 65, hasn’t given up hope despite his seven-stroke deficit.
“I think the best thing is there is someone up there close so they can think about each other and maybe get distracted for a few holes and I can quietly creep up on them,” Scott said.
“Seven back, yeah, I mean, I don’t know. You think a five-under round would be good, but I don’t know if it’s going to be good. Might need an eagle to go here or there on the par fives. Somewhere, I need a hot nine over the weekend to narrow the gap.”
The 6-foot, 154-pound Niemann showed no signs of stumbling after his near-perfect round Thursday. Teeing off amid chilly morning temperatures, he sent a 207-yard approach shot on the par-five first hole to within four feet of the pin and holed the putt for an eagle.
Niemann drained a 14½-foot putt for birdie on No. 2, and a 144-foot approach to within one foot of the pin set him up for another birdie on No. 7. A nine-foot putt for birdie on No. 9 pushed him to 13 under before his only bogey of the day on No. 10 dropped him to 12 under.
Niemann bounced back with a 12½-foot birdie putt on No. 11, a 41-foot birdie putt on No. 12, an 18-foot birdie putt on 14 and a short birdie putt on 17.
“Obviously it was a great start after [Thursday’s] round,” said Niemann, who has one PGA Tour win, the 2020 Military Tribute at The Greenbrier. “Didn’t sleep much. It was pretty late when I finished [Thursday] and we started pretty early [Friday], but yeah, we got it going pretty good at the beginning.
“But there’s still a lot of golf to go, 36 holes, so a lot of things can happen here. Yeah, just try not to think about it, who’s going to be up there with me or who’s going to be coming from behind. Just try to worry about my game, try to worry about my shots, and I think it should be all right.”
Thomas, who began the day at four under, birdied three holes on the front nine and gained two more strokes with a 31½-foot putt for eagle on No. 11 to go to nine under. The long putt was preceded by 336-yard drive off the tee and a 230-yard approach.
“That was definitely the most well-played hole I had today,” Thomas said. “Hit a great drive. That’s a good example of if you land that ball in the fairway, you get another 40, 50 yards of run.
“Hit a beautiful little high-cut 5-iron that landed short of the green and rolled up on there. I’ve had a putt or chip similar to that line and saw Cameron [Smith] right before me, so I had a pretty good idea what it was doing. It was nice to steal a three there.”
Spieth, who began the day at five under, birdied three holes on the front nine and chipped in from 30½ feet for an eagle on No. 11 to go from eight under to 10 under. His short-game wizardry and recovery skills allowed him to save par on the 13th, 14th and 15th holes.
Spieth’s second shot on No. 13 landed near a drainage ditch in some thick, soft grass to the side of the green, 88 feet from the pin. He got up and down with a chip to within two feet and a putt for par.
Spieth’s tee shot on No. 14, a 180-yard par three, found a greenside bunker, 88 feet from the pin. He blasted a sand wedge that rolled a few inches to the side of the hole and drained a 10-foot putt to save par.
Spieth’s drive on No. 15, a 474-yard par four, found a bunker to the right of the fairway, but a nice iron shot to the fairway in front of the green, 78 feet from the pin, and a pitch to within two feet allowed him to save par.
Russell Knox shot solid rounds of 68 Thursday and 67 Friday and is tied for seventh at seven under, a score that usually would lead or put a player in the hunt at the halfway point of the Genesis Invitational. This year, Knox is nine strokes back entering the weekend.
“I don’t care — I’ve never made the weekend here, so I’m absolutely delighted that I’m getting a chance to play two more days,” Knox said. “It’s a course that’s difficult to keep going for four days.
“I mean, obviously, [16 under] is scary good. It’s dry, it’s warm, the greens are good, so obviously he’s on full cylinders. I mean, I’m delighted with a seven under, and if I get to double digits, it would be super nice. That’s my goal every week.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.