LOS ANGELES — Three months ago, Joaquin Niemann was forced to deal with a cruel blow of bad luck that would have rocked the world of most golfers.
Poised to play in his first Masters as a professional in November, Niemann had to withdraw from Augusta because he tested positive for COVID-19.
What did the 22-year-old from Chile do?
He took the devastating news in stride, because he has a perspective that runs quite a bit deeper than most 20-somethings do, thanks in large part to a family crisis he’s made his mission to help solve.
Niemann has a 5-month-old cousin, Rafita Calderon, who’s been battling spinal muscular atrophy, a rare neuromuscular disease that leads to muscle wasting and respiratory failure. The prognosis for most infants diagnosed with the disease is they don’t live beyond early childhood.
So, missing a Masters was not going to get Niemann down, not when he thought about what his young cousin was enduring. Not when he knew he was going to have many more opportunities to make that magical drive down Magnolia Lane, beginning with this coming April.
Because of what Rafita is going though, things that happen on the golf course don’t really faze Niemann much.
Not losing in a playoff to Harris English in the Sentry Tournament of Champions last month in Maui, one of two consecutive runner-up finishes he posted in Hawaii (he also finished second in the Sony).
Certainly not after shooting a 4-under-par 67 in Thursday’s opening round of the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club to stand one shot out of the lead held by Matthew Fitzpatrick.
As well as Niemann has been playing on the golf course, it’s what he’s been doing off of it that’s so impressive.
Niemann, using his own money and his platform, raised more than $2 million in about four months so doctors could treat his cousin with a drug called Zolgensma, a gene therapy for children under the age of 2 that the FDA approved in 2019.
It’s one-time intravenous injection that is designed to improve muscle movement and function, and survival of a child afflicted with the disease. If the drug works for a patient such as Rafita, it’s possible to stop the deterioration of motor neurons and give the child a chance to not merely to live, but to achieve normal development.
Two challenging issues ensued for the family: time and cost. The medicine has the best chance to work if given within the first 100 days of the infant’s life. And the injection costs $2.1 million.
Niemann embarked on what he called “a mission to help out’’ his family. Felipe Calderon, the father of Rafita, is a first-cousin with Niemann’s mother.
“I grew up with Felipe,’’ Niemann said. “We are close. He helped me a lot. He came and watched me at some golf tournaments. They’ve been so nice to me since I grew up, since I was a kid, so I just feel good by helping back.’’
Of the more than $2 million Niemann raised, more than $200,000 of it came from his winning purses in the RSM Classic ($152,450) and Mayakoba Golf Classic ($65,263), numbers that included $5,000 for each birdie he made and $10,000 for each eagle.
“This week I am playing for something bigger,” Niemann posted on his Instagram leading into the RSM.
Niemann got his sponsors and social media involved, with fellow players such as Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler, wearing pins on their hats during tournaments and getting the word out to people on how to donate by putting links on their social media platforms.
Just days ago, Rafita was given the $2.1 million injection.
“It’s been amazing last couple days,’’ Niemann said. “He got the medicine a couple days ago and now he’s out of the hospital and with his father [and] is feeling good. It’s amazing to see how much money we raised in such a short period. Now that we’ve got it done, it feels relief. We’ve got to keep fighting for Rafita.
“I just can’t wait to see him come with me and maybe follow me a couple holes. That will be nice, one of my dreams.’’
Better than playing in a Masters.
Better than winning at Riviera this week.
Niemann’s father introduced to the game at age 2 when he gave him a set of plastic clubs. Niemann recalled when, as a 4-year-old, he got real equipment and flushed a 40-yard shot during a family barbecue that drilled his grandmother in the leg (she was not badly hurt).
Hopefully, thanks to Niemann, Rafita Calderson will one day have those kinds of fond memories to tell.