Tokyo 2020

From childhood friends to medal contenders? Team Chile features two rising stars

Joaquin Niemann Mito Pereira Childhood Photo
Childhood photo of Joaquin Niemann and Mito Pereira.
Photo courtesy of Joaquin Niemann

Joaquin Niemann and Mito Pereira make Chile a surprise contender in Tokyo

Joaquin Niemann and Mito Pereira, friends from Chile who knock around Niemann’s house in Jupiter, Florida, on their rare weeks off, have, ahem, different culinary talents.

Pereira, who with three Korn Ferry Tour victories this season was recently promoted to the PGA TOUR, is a barbecue specialist whose grilled pumpkin with cream cheese is said to be epic. 

And Niemann?

“Uber Eats,” he said during a practice round for the recent Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit. The two cracked up laughing.

Chile’s surprisingly formidable Olympic golf team could not be much closer. They share the same coach, Eduardo Miguel, and a similar style of play – although only Pereira uses a claw putting grip. They were teenagers when they first began to run into each other at junior tournaments in Santiago. Niemann, 22, wore a lot of yellow. “He looked like a bee,” said Pereira, 26, who as the older player always boasted a more mature game. 

It all flipped when Niemann played his way onto the TOUR via sponsor exemptions as a teenager. But they’re still close. Needing somewhere to keep his Korn Ferry Tour trophies, Pereira had them sent to Niemann’s pad in South Florida, where he crashes in the U.S. The caveat: Niemann, eager for his friend to join him on TOUR, said he would store them only if Pereira won three.    

“We all grew up together,” said Carlos Bustos, 24, another Chilean who just finished his college career at Florida and joined Niemann and Pereira at the Rocket Mortgage. “Mito was always better because he was older than us. He was on another level at that age, when we were like 13, 14, I mean he was an unbelievable golfer.”

Pereira won his first professional tournament when he was still a 17-year-old amateur.

“I remember playing when I was a junior,” Niemann said, “and I was always looking at him like a really good player. Yeah, he's always been a good player. It's nice to have him here now.”

In retrospect, Niemann was even more precocious. The former No. 1 amateur in the world, he notched top-10s in three of his first five starts upon turning professional in 2018, parlaying sponsor exemptions into a TOUR card like Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm. 

At A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier last season he became the first Chilean TOUR winner and first under-21 international TOUR winner since Rory McIlroy and Seve Ballesteros. 

“There was a turning point when Joaquin turned pro and got those invites and took advantage and made that jump,” Bustos said. “Mito took the long road. PGA TOUR Latinoamerica, Korn Ferry Tour, back to Latinoamerica, Korn Ferry again, and now he’s here.”

Indeed, Pereira’s path was unconventional. He started at the IMG Academy in Florida at 14, quit golf at 15, and started up again at 17. He earned a scholarship to Texas Tech and stayed for one year before turning pro, but his progress was halted by a biking accident and a broken collarbone. He has seen a mental coach who works with soccer players and F1 drivers. 

Not until February 2020, right before the start of the pandemic, did he begin to hit his stride with a 20-foot eagle at the last to win the Korn Ferry Tour’s Country Club de Bogota Championship. Back-to-back wins at the REX Hospital Open and BMW Charity Pro-Am earlier this summer made him the 12th player in KFT history to earn the Three-victory Promotion.

“It’s nice to have some Chileans here,” Pereira said at the Rocket Mortgage, where he enjoyed the company of Bustos and Niemann but missed the cut. “I played OK. I missed so many putts.”

Added Niemann, “He knows what he needs to do. He’s got the game, obviously, he just needs to get used to it. I think he will get it pretty quick, and he will start playing pretty good out here.”

Niemann already is. His three runner-up finishes this season include the Rocket Mortgage, where he lost a playoff with eventual winner Cam Davis and Troy Merritt. Niemann, who is in the top 30 in Strokes Gained: Putting, could have won the tournament in regulation with great looks at eagle and birdie on 17 and 18, respectively. But he missed them both. 

Still, he vowed not to take it too hard, just as he didn’t in Maui when he lost a playoff to Harris English at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and finished runner-up again at the Sony Open in Hawaii the following week. He’d be ready when his time came again, he said. He’s still just 22 and seems to know that he could win any week, including in Tokyo. 

“The Olympics is gonna be great,” Bustos said. “I’m happy for them. I’m looking forward to seeing one of them get the medal.” Or a medal, anyway. Perhaps even two medals. 

Felipe Aguilar, the lone Chilean men’s golfer at the 2016 Rio Olympics, tied for 39th. Now, though, with Niemann and Pereira enjoying banner seasons, Chile has two medal contenders. 

“Just to compete for my country,” Pereira said, when asked what he’s looking forward to the most. “To do the best for my country.” Niemann echoed those sentiments.

“Yeah, it's been awesome because I got Mito here,” he said of their team bonding in Detroit. 

Yes, the U.S., with four players – Bryson DeChambeau, Collin Morikawa, Xander Schauffele, Justin Thomas – will be the favorite. Chile, though, has its own strength in numbers. Because when you go way, way back, sometimes two means a lot.

This article was originally published on PGATOUR.COM. <>

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