Salvemos, Rafita, translates to “save, Rafita.” That hashtag is the mission this week for 22-year-old Chilean golfer Joaquin Niemann, who has promised to donate his winnings at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, to help pay for the medical needs of his young relative.
It could be a big check if Niemann can maintain his early pace. He made an eagle and three birdies on his second nine to shoot 5-under 66 at El Camaleon Golf Club on a windy, rainy day on the Yucatan Peninsula to share the early lead in the opening round with Argentine Emiliano Grillo at the PGA Tour’s final official event of the calendar year.
A few days after Niemann’s one-month-old cousin, Rafita Calderon, was born, his Aunt Carola, who is a pediatrician, observed that the baby displayed symptoms of hypotonia. Tests revealed that Calderon suffered from Type 1 Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which affects about 1 in every 10,000 babies born every year. Symptoms include weak muscle tone, trouble breathing and swallowing, and those diagnosed with the rare genetic disease have a life expectancy of two years. Calderon is battling for his life, desperately needing a one-time injection of Zolgensma, a drug which according to Niemann costs $2.1 million in his home country. Calderon is at a medical center in Santiago, Chile, five hours from where the family lives awaiting treatment.
Niemann posted an Instagram story in support of his young relative and created a Go Fund Me page that already has raised more than $120,000. At the RSM Classic two weeks ago, Niemann promised to contribute $5,000 for every birdie and $10,000 for every eagle in addition to his earnings, which totaled $152,450. This week, Niemann is wearing a ribbon on the top of his hat to raise awareness of Rafita’s plight, and he isn’t alone.
“I’ve got a bag with a lot of them, so yeah, just put it on the first tee and the locker and the 10th tee so (players) can grab it,” Niemann said. “Having all the support from all the people here on Tour is really amazing, and also from Mexico. The tournament, they’re helping me a lot to tell a little bit more of the story of Rafita, so happy for all the support of the players. We’re fighting for him.”
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) December 3, 2020
Niemann, 22, became the first Chilean to win on the PGA Tour at the 2019 A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier and represented his country as a member of the International team at the 2019 Presidents Cup.
Grillo, 28, also is seeking his second career Tour title and first since 2015. Playing in his trademark aggressive style, Grillo rattled off four birdies in a row beginning at the fifth and drained a 20-foot par putt at his final hole of the day to shoot 66 and extend his streak of par-or-better rounds in the event to a perfect 17-for-17.
“There is not a flag stick, you could put it behind a tree, he will find it,” said PGA Tour Radio commentator Dennis Paulson of Grillo. “He is not afraid. He is the Lanny Wadkins of his generation.”
American Rickie Fowler, who is winless this year, carded eight birdies but also a quadruple-bogey 8 en route to shooting 1-under 70. World No. 3 Justin Thomas struggled to shoot 1-over 72.
Niemann got off to a sluggish start, too, offsetting an early bogey with a bounce-back birdie on his first nine, the back nine, before going on a 5-under tear over the course of five holes beginning at No. 3. He drilled a 7-wood to reach the par-5 seventh in two and rolled in the putt for eagle. Niemann, the 45th-ranked player in the world, did most of his damage on the three par 5 holes, which he played in 4 under. After the round, he reiterated his social media post that he’s playing for something bigger than himself this week.
“It’s always extra motivation trying to play for him,” Niemann said of Rafita, “and get some more money for him, so yeah, it’s special.”
And Niemann didn’t need to be told what a first prize of $1,296,000 this week would do to help efforts to get his relative the medical attention he needs.
“It would be nice to see,” Niemann said.