Jordan Niebrugge’s college coaches told him his expectations for his golf game were too modest. So he aimed higher. Now, he’s a national champion.
Niebrugge, a rising sophomore at Oklahoma State University, held off a late charge by Michael Kim, winning the 36-hole final of the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, 1 up, 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.
Niebrugge’s impressive march to the championship title was keyed by getting ahead of his opponents early. He trailed for just two holes of the 114 he played in his six matches this week.
After Kim won the first hole with a 13-foot birdie putt, Niebrugge immediately responded by winning hole Nos. 2 and 3. Niebrugge extended his lead to 2 up when Kim found the right rough on the fifth hole and made bogey. After both players parred the par-4 sixth, Kim was able to square the match by rolling in birdie putts of 5 and 30 feet, respectively, on the seventh and eighth holes.
The players then halved the next eight holes before Niebrugge finally broke the deadlock with a 20-foot birdie putt at the 492-yard, par-4 17th to take a 1-up lead into the lunch break.
Coming out of the break, Niebrugge made a 12-foot putt for birdie on the 374-yard, par-4 second hole – the 20th of the match – to pull ahead by two. The second hole was one of Niebrugge’s favorites all week – he birdied (and won) the hole on six of the seven occasions he played it in match play.
Niebrugge extended his lead to 3 up with a 20-foot birdie putt at the par-3 22nd, then pushed it to 4 up when Kim three-putted from 40 feet at the 24th. Kim had never trailed more than 1 down in any of his five previous matches – now he trailed by four holes to a player who had yet to card a bogey on Saturday.
But Kim responded, making a two-putt birdie on the par-5 27th to draw back to within three holes and then sinking his first long putt of the day – a 28-footer on the 30th – to cut the deficit to two holes.
Niebrugge’s run of 30 consecutive holes without a bogey came to an end at the 422-yard 13th. He hit the green in regulation, but three-putted from 35 feet, giving Kim his second straight hole. All of a sudden, Niebrugge’s lead was trimmed to one.
Kim narrowly missed a 7-foot birdie putt on the 32nd and then both players sank clutch birdie putts on the 33rd – first Kim from 12 feet, then Niebrugge from 10 feet – to keep the margin at one.
"That was a huge hole for me after he made birdie," said Niebrugge. "I think that was kind of the momentum swing. If I would have missed it, we would have been [all-square] going into the last three holes and anything could have happened after that."
Both players parred the 16th and 17th, setting up a dramatic finish at the 599-yard, par-5 closing hole over water. They each found the fairway with their tee shots. Kim played first and attempted to reach the green in two, but his hybrid approach did not carry the water hazard. Niebrugge, who had only 204 yards to the green, played conservatively and laid back with Kim in trouble.
Kim took his one-stroke penalty, dropped and stuck his wedge shot to within 3 feet, but Niebrugge played his pitch to the back fringe and chipped down for a conceded par to win the tightly contested match.
"Going into today I was really focused on playing the course like I had all week," said Niebrugge. "Obviously [Kim] is a great player with great achievements, but I didn't really look at who I was playing because I felt like I was hitting it good enough to stay with anybody."
While Kim had four different caddies over the course of the week due to the extreme heat, Niebrugge had just one – his father, Rod. After Oklahoma State University teammate Ian Davis lost in the third round, Niebrugge considered asking OSU assistant golf coach, Brian Guetz, who served as Davis’ caddie for the week, if he would stick around to carry his bag.
"Then I said, 'Well Dad, you're doing OK and I like having you on the bag,'" said Niebrugge. "I'm glad he could make it all 36 [holes] these last couple of days and I really appreciate everything he's done [for me] over my entire career in golf."
Niebrugge credited his coaches at Oklahoma State for instilling confidence in him during his freshman season. His original goal was to finish in the top 20 of every tournament he played in, but his coaches convinced him he could do even better. His win also earns some amount of redemption for Oklahoma State golfers in the APL. Dayton Rose finished as runner-up in 2003 and 2004.
Kim, for his part, was disappointed in not taking home the APL title, but gave credit to Niebrugge’s consistent play.
"Jordan played great," said Kim, who on Wednesday was one of five players named to the 2013 USA Walker Cup Team. "He only made one bogey in 36 holes, so I knew I had to make birdies to win holes and just fell one or two short. These USGA events are as much a physical grind as testing your golf game. I just have to keep improving and we’ll see what happens next year."
Kim was the second University of California-Berkeley golfer to finish runner-up in an 'open' Amateur final in as many USGA championships – Michael Weaver lost to Steven Fox in 37 holes at the 2012 U.S. Amateur. Kim was also attempting to join Max Homa, who won the NCAA Division I Championship in May, as Cal golfers to win individual national titles in 2013.
For his victory, Niebrugge receives a gold medal and custody of the James D. Standish Trophy. If he remains an amateur, he will receive exemptions into the next two U.S. Amateurs and a three-year exemption from local U.S. Open qualifying. He is also likely to receive an invitation to the 2014 Masters Tournament. Kim is exempt into next month's U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and receives an exemption out of local qualifying for the 2014 U.S. Open, which will be held at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club. Both players will receive an exemption into next year’s APL – the final edition of the championship, which will be held at Sand Creek Station Golf Course in Newton, Kan.
Michael Trostel is the curator/historian at the USGA Museum. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lorton, Va. – Results from Saturday’s 36-hole final at the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship being held at 7,022-yard, par-70 Laurel Hill Golf Club.
Jordan Niebrugge, Mequon, Wis. (138) def. Michael Kim, Del Mar, Calif. (137), 1 up