LORTON, Va. – The last thing Michael Kim needed in this week’s sweltering weather at the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Laurel Hill Golf Club was more heat, but his opponent in the final, Jordan Niebrugge turned up the pressure gauge to full throttle in scoring a 1-up victory in the 36-hole final.
Kim, 20, the low amateur at this year’s U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., was as many as four holes down after lunch as his opponent’s putter caught fire, with Niebrugge, 19, one-putting four straight times from holes 21-24 to build a match-high 4-up lead.
Kim, a 5-foot-10, 150-pound rising junior at the University of California-Berkeley, called on his reserves to get to within 3 down at the 27th hole, the par-5 ninth, where he made birdie from just off the green. In the closing stretch, Kim, who battled an inconsistent putter for much of the match, finally got one to drop when he drained a 28-footer for birdie from left of the hole at the 30th, the par-4 12th and scored a par-win at the ensuing hole when Niebrugge three-putted for the first time in 30 holes.
Then came what may have been the hole of the match. After Kim made a 12-footer for birdie at the 33rd hole, the par-5 15th, Niebrugge closed the escape hatch, ramming in a 10-footer right on top of him to keep his 1-up lead.
Kim didn’t have a realistic birdie chance the rest of the way. With Niebrugge still holding a 1-up lead at the 36th hole, the par-5 18th, Kim was positioned to go for the putting surface in two, but he mis-hit his hybrid and his ball found the water hazard guarding the putting surface to basically end his title hopes. Niebrugge chipped close on the final hole and his par putt was conceded.
Both finalists offered plenty of brilliant strokes, but Niebrugge showed calm and ball-striking prowess, not only in the deciding encounter, but throughout the week. Niebrugge made only one bogey in the final and trailed only two holes out of 114 holes played during match play. Kim could only give credit to the champion and pointed toward his opponent’s surge as a turning point in the match.
“I let up a little bit during that first nine in the afternoon and Jordan played great in that stretch,” Kim said. “I tried to make a comeback and pulled within 1 (down), but I just kind of ran out of holes. Jordan made one bogey today. He played great. All the credit goes to him.”
Kim won numerous accolades this season, including earning the Fred Haskins Award as the nation’s top collegiate player. One hole remains in his résumé, winning a USGA championship. But Kim can look ahead to a bright future and a summer of important events.
“I still have the U.S. Amateur as well as the Western Amateur and I’m just trying to look forward and play well,” Kim said.
After winning three matches last year, Kim considers this year’s championship one more lesson learned about how to compete and win.
“These USGA events are as much a physical grind as testing your golf game,” he said. “I lost in the round of 16 last year, so I have to keep improving and we’ll see what happens next year.”
Andrew Blair is director of communications for the Virginia State Golf Association. He is assisting the USGA this week at the APL.