Joaquin Niemann crowned LIV Golf Jeddah champion

JEDDAH: It is not an exaggeration to say that all eyes in the world of golf will be on LIV Golf Jeddah in Saudi Arabia this week.

The Public Investment Fund-backed league has done more than enough in the recent past to become one of the strongest tours in the world, but enticing Anthony Kim to return to professional golf is probably the coolest thing it has done so far.

It remains to be seen what sort of form the 38-year-old American will be in after his 12-year hiatus from the sport. He might take some time to get back into the groove but be prepared for the internet to go nuts if he has a good opening round on Friday.

Kim is the mystery man of golf, an almost mythical figure. His talent and his skills were unreal when he played regularly on the PGA Tour, winning three titles before he turned 25, but then he said goodbye to the game at the age of just 26.

Some have described his return to professional golf as being like “the resurfacing of the Loch Ness Monster,” others as a sighting of the golfing world’s “Yeti.”

Kim’s return to competition will certainly be one of the biggest storylines to follow during LIV Golf Jeddah this weekend, but here are six others that could ramp up the excitement at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club.

Jon Rahm’s first time in Saudi Arabia

World No. 3 Jon Rahm is the biggest signing in LIV Golf history and the mercurial Spaniard, a two-time major champion, including victory at last year’s Masters, is set to make his first appearance in Saudi Arabia this week.

Given the wind and length of the course at Royal Greens, and the peculiarities associated with a desert course, the venue should play right into Rahm’s hands. A phenomenal striker of the ball, he has spent the past decade based in Arizona and so is used to such conditions. He is also a two-time DP World Tour Championship winner in the neighboring UAE, on a similar style of course.

Koepka’s ‘three-peat’ attempt

Brooks Koepka, a five-time major champion, faced tough challenges to the last putt in Jeddah in 2022 and 2023, but emerged victorious from playoffs both times. He beat teammate Peter Uihlein in the inaugural season of LIV Golf, then got better of Talor Gooch last October.

The 33-year-old resident of West Palm Beach, who was the only LIV Golf player on last year’s Ryder Cup team, will be going for an unprecedented “three-peat” this week. Should he succeed, which is very much within the realms of possibility, it will set a hard-to-beat record in the relatively short history of LIV Golf so far.

The Crushers aim to bounce back

The 2023 Team Championship winners, the Bryson DeChambeau-led Crushers GC, have a point to prove in Saudi Arabia. They were cruising toward a team victory last year at Royal Greens, and DeChambeau looked like a lock for his third individual title of the season, when the unthinkable happened. The Crushers juggernaut came to a grinding halt during Sunday’s final round, they dropped to fourth place and DeChambeau slipped up to finish tied for 16th.

They will be keen to prove that the final round last year was nothing more than an aberration.

Niemann’s time to shine

Chile’s Joaquin Niemann is the LIV man in the news, having recently received a special invitation to play at this year’s Masters. It is just reward for all the chasing he has been doing lately, including victory in the Australian Open in December, fourth place in the Hero Dubai Desert Classic in January, and third in the International Series Oman last week. He also won LIV Golf Mayakoba this month, the season opener, which unfortunately did not earn him any world ranking points.

Niemann’s world-class talent is unquestionable and he is clearly fired up at the moment, which makes him a dangerous contender this week.

Saudi specialist DJ back in form

Koepka might be the flavor of the moment at Royal Greens thanks to his back-to-back LIV Golf wins there, but the original boss of the course is his close friend Dustin Johnson, two-time winner of the Saudi International there in 2019 and 2021, with a second place sandwiched between the victories. Even at the LIV Golf events in the past two years, his record is a respectable tie for fifth and a solo sixth place.

Now that the former world No. 1 has finally gotten over his short title drought with a win in Las Vegas this month, be prepared to perhaps see some fireworks once again from the big American.

The change of schedule

In 2022, Koepka won the tournament with a 12-under-par total, and finished on 14-under when he successfully defended his title last year.

A major change to the tournament this year, however, is that it is being played in the first week of March, when the conditions will much cooler compared with the October scheduling of previous years. Royal Greens will therefore feel like a different course, with changed wind directions and slightly softer greens. Expect the scores to be lower, therefore, unless the Red Sea has different ideas and starts blowing high winds towards the course.

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