LORTON, Va. – James Erkenbeck has suffered his share of heartbreak in the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. He’s been turned back by future PGA Tour professionals and, as stroke-play medalist in 2012, was defeated in 21 holes in the first round. Now he’s just two wins away from claiming the elusive title.
He will be joined by Jordan Niebrugge, Michael Kim and Eric Sugimoto in the semifinals of the APL at the 7,022-yard, par-70 Laurel Hill Golf Club.
The APL is one of 13 individual national championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.
The first three matches of the day came down to the 18th hole, with each decided on the reachable par 5.
For the second straight match, Erkenbeck used a run in the middle of his outward nine to build a lead. On Friday morning against Austin Smotherman, 19, of Loomis, Calif., the San Diego native won the fourth and fifth holes with pars and gained a three-hole advantage with a birdie on the 321-yard, par-4 seventh.
“I hit it really well on the front and put pressure on him right away,” said Erkenbeck, the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, who represented the United States on the 2013 Palmer Cup Team. “I hit my best shot of the week on [No.] 7 – a big, slice driver to about 7 feet. That had me feeling pretty good.”
That two-putt birdie put Erkenbeck 3 up and seemingly in control of the match. But Smotherman fought back, winning the ninth and 16th holes – both par 5s – to pull within one. On the final hole, Erkenbeck nearly drove the ball into a hazard, but chopped back to the fairway about 75 yards away, then stuck his wedge to 3 feet for a conceded birdie to win, 1 up.
At 23, Erkenbeck is not only the oldest player remaining in the field, but is the most experienced in this championship, making his fourth consecutive appearance. After losing to Rickie Fowler (2010) and Harris English (2011), Erkenbeck was the stroke-play medalist in last year’s APL at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah. He led No. 64 seed Alex Edfort 2 up with four holes to play in his first-round match, but Edfort birdied three of the last four holes to force extra holes, then eagled the third playoff hole to defeat Erkenbeck.
“It’s hard having leads,” said Erkenbeck with a laugh. “Things can only go wrong because you’re expected to win. I’ve just tried to keep adding to the lead so my opponent can’t get any momentum.”
Erkenbeck’s next opponent, Niebrugge, of Mequon, Wis., continued his run of dominance in this year’s APL. Thus far, he has not trailed in any of his four matches, although he was extended to the 18th hole on Friday morning for the first time all week. Niebrugge used birdies at the second and seventh to build a 3-up lead on Zecheng Dou, 16, of The People’s Republic of China. Dou trimmed the deficit to one hole with birdies on the ninth and 10th, but Niebrugge responded with a birdie of his own on the 164-yard 11th.
They matched birdies on the 14th and 15th holes, and again on the 18th to give Niebrugge the 1-up victory. In total, the players combined for eight birdies on the second nine.
“We both hit a lot of quality iron shots out there,” said Niebrugge. “On the 14th, he made a 30-footer, then I made a 25-footer right on top. On the next hole we both made birdies from 10 feet. He didn’t leave me a choice; if I wanted to win the match, I had to answer him.”
Niebrugge, 19, was one of three Oklahoma State golfers to advance to match play. Talor Gooch and Ian Davis both qualified ahead of Niebrugge, but now he is the only Cowboy left at Laurel Hill. After two runner-up finishes in collegiate events and a win in last month’s Wisconsin State Golf Association Match Play, Niebrugge seems to be peaking as he heads into his sophomore season.
“We really have pushed each other all year,” said Niebrugge, who had dinner with Davis on Thursday night. “They motivate me and are a huge part of my success.”
In the other semifinal, Michael Kim, 20, of Del Mar, will face fellow Southern Californian Eric Sugimoto, of San Diego.
In a highly anticipated match, Kim – the second ranked player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking – edged Robby Shelton IV, the top-ranked junior player in the country, 1 up. Kim never trailed in the match, but it remained close throughout. The University of California-Berkeley junior was 2 up after making birdie at the 13th, but Shelton, 17, of Wilmer, Ala., was able to square the match when Kim double-bogeyed the 14th and bogeyed the 15th. Kim then holed a bunker shot for birdie on the 212-yard 16th to regain the lead and was conceded a birdie on No. 18 after Shelton missed his 30-foot eagle putt.
“I hit a great bunker shot on [No.] 16 – which was huge because I had just lost the last two holes,” said Kim, a member of the 2013 USA Walker Cup Team. “It was a hard-fought win.”
Kim knows Sugimoto very well from their days growing up in the San Diego area – they have been competing against each other since they were 8 years old.
“We go way back,” said Sugimoto, with a smile. “Sometimes we talk about when we used to play little par-3 courses together when the first hole was only about 25 yards [in length].”
Sugimoto took advantage of several miscues from Kyle Henning, of Brookfield, Wis., to win his quarterfinal match, 2 and 1. Henning birdied the first hole to grab a 1-up lead, but the advantage was short-lived. Bogeys by Henning on the third, fifth, ninth and 11th holes, as well as a double bogey on the seventh, swung the match in Sugimoto’s favor.
“I was able to capitalize on some of Kyle’s mistakes early,” said Sugimoto, “then held on down the stretch when he started pouring in birdies late.”
The semifinal matches began at 12:15 p.m. EDT. The winners will advance to the 36-hole final, which is scheduled for Saturday morning.
Michael Trostel is the curator/historian at the USGA Museum. Email him at email@example.com.
Lorton, Va. – Results from Friday morning’s quarterfinal matches at the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship being held at 7,022-yard, par-70 Laurel Hill Golf Club.
James Erkenbeck, San Diego, Calif. (137) def. Austin Smotherman, Loomis, Calif. (140), 1 up
Jordan Niebrugge, Mequon, Wis. (138) def. Zecheng Dou, People's Republic of China (141), 1 up
Michael Kim, Del Mar, Calif. (137) def. Robby Shelton IV, Wilmer, Ala. (139), 1 up
Eric Sugimoto, San Diego, Calif. (135) def. Kyle Henning, Brookfield, Wis. (145), 2 and 1
Lorton, Va. – Pairings and starting times for Friday afternoon’s semifinal matches at the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship being held at 7,022-yard, par-70 Laurel Hill Golf Club. All times EDT.
12:15 pm - James Erkenbeck, San Diego, Calif. (137) vs. Jordan Niebrugge, Mequon, Wis. (138)
12:30 pm - Michael Kim, Del Mar, Calif. (137) vs. Eric Sugimoto, San Diego, Calif. (135)