“It was pretty awesome,” said Niebrugge, 20, who held off Michael Kim, 1 up, in the 36-hole APL final last July. “Just walking out to the first tee was pretty cool. Just seeing the whole landscape right here was unbelievable.”
Niebrugge arrived for the Masters late Sunday night, a little bleary eyed from a flight from Houston. Hours earlier, he helped Oklahoma State to a tie for fourth at the Aggie Invitational in College Station, Texas. Niebrugge tied for 30th individually, shooting 75-81-75, but it’s likely his mind was already a thousand miles away.
Niebrugge arrived shortly after midnight and was in the Crow’s Nest, the dormitory-style room atop Augusta National’s clubhouse, around 12:30 a.m. He exchanged pleasantries with 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Mike McCoy, 31 years his senior, before putting his head on a pillow.
Niebrugge’s first official practice round was put on hold, thanks to a thunderstorm that rolled through the area on Monday morning. On Tuesday, he was scheduled to play a practice round with fellow Wisconsin native Steve Stricker. On Wednesday he is planning to play with 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson.
There is also a chance Niebrugge could play with former Oklahoma State standout Rickie Fowler, like Niebrugge a past Walker Cup competitor.
During one of Niebrugge’s two pre-Masters visits – he estimates that he played 7-8 rounds – Augusta member and fellow Mequon resident Jim Reinhart set up a practice round with Jeff Knox, an Augusta member who is one of Georgia’s best amateur golfers. Niebrugge, No. 10 in this week’s World Amateur Golf Ranking, absorbed every bit of knowledge he could in setting up a game plan for the week.
“I pretty much have a handle with it off the tee,” said Niebrugge. “I’m more comfortable, which is good. Obviously around the greens is the biggest part of this course. It’s probably the biggest defense for the course. Just being comfortable around the greens, getting the speed down, knowing the correct side to miss is a huge aspect.”
Three years ago, Niebrugge stamped a name for himself in Wisconsin by winning the Wisconsin State Open, along with the state high school championship. Last summer, Niebrugge completed his state “grand slam” by adding the Wisconsin State Match Play and Wisconsin State Amateur, joining 1992 U.S. Junior Amateur runner-up and five-time PGA Tour winner Mark Wilson as the only golfers to have won all four major state events.
Niebrugge also added the APL and Western Amateur titles, which helped land him a spot on the 2013 USA Walker Cup Team, which defeated Great Britain & Ireland at the National Golf Links of America last September. He posted a pair of singles wins and was 2-2 overall.
Facing the pressure of playing for his country helped prepare Niebrugge for the Masters.
“Anytime you can put yourself in that position is really good for your game,” said Niebrugge. “I was the one who had to hit the first shot [on Saturday morning in foursomes] and I was actually going for the green, so that was a little nerve-racking, but it was pretty cool. Once you get that first tee shot over with, it’s pretty lax from there on out.”
Niebrugge again played for his country last fall when he was chosen to compete in the Spirit International with 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Scottie Scheffler. The two teamed to win the men’s title and the overall team title with help from 2014 USA Curtis Cup selections Ashlan Ramsey and Ally McDonald.
His next decision was who would caddie for him at the Masters. Several teammates lobbied for the assignment, but Niebrugge went with OSU coach Alan Bratton, a 1995 Walker Cup competitor who caddied for Peter Uihlein, the 2010 U.S. Amateur champion and former Cowboy standout, at the 2011 Masters.
“He’s got some experience,” said Niebrugge of the choice.
All that is left is to wait for Thursday’s first round.
Niebrugge feels ready. His short game has improved immensely in the last year. His confidence has risen from winning those four 2013 events and representing the USA at the Walker Cup.
He has even managed to get his schoolwork done.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Niebrugge. “There’s definitely a lot of excitement. It’s pretty awesome to see how many people support me, teammates-wise, coaches-wise, family-wise. It’s pretty cool to see texts like that from your friends. Just to be here this week is going to be great.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.