At the Walker Cup, Niebrugge big on family

Jordan Niebrugge (far left) played a practice session Friday at National Golf Links with U.S. teammates (from left) Bobby Wyatt, Todd White and Cory Whitsett.

Jordan Niebrugge (far left) played a practice session Friday at National Golf Links with U.S. teammates (from left) Bobby Wyatt, Todd White and Cory Whitsett.

— Rod Niebrugge was supposed to be in Cancun this weekend, celebrating his 50th birthday. He finds himself instead in the Hamptons – house rented, preparing for the arrival of five of his siblings, strolling the grounds at National Golf Links on a sunny Friday morning.

This is the scenario that Niebrugge was afraid to picture earlier this summer, as his son Jordan compiled victory after victory and played his way onto the U.S. Walker Cup team. Rod was on the bag for Jordan’s U.S. Amateur Public Links victory and as he played to the first round of match play at the U.S. Amateur.

“You don’t want to get your hopes up so you just keep playing and see what happens,” Rod said. “He was at least on the radar.”

When Jordan replays the highlights of his summer, Rod’s presence is prominent. The possibility of a Walker Cup berth became tangible at the Western Amateur. He remembers that realization through a conversation with his father that week. He told Rod that if he made a good showing at the Western, he could have a real chance. That’s where Rod entered as the voice of reason.

Jordan didn’t think Rod had the stamina for four rounds of stroke play then match play on the bag at the Western, so he started the week carrying his own bag. He opened with a 6-under 66 at the Alotian Club in Roland, Ark., and decided not to change a thing. Two rounds later, Rod convinced him to hire a local looper.

“I told him, ‘I know you feel OK now, but if you plan on winning this week, get a caddie,’ ” Rod remembers.

Rod was the man who put a putter in his son’s hand at the age of 3. Jordan went to a camp at Glen Echo Country Club in St. Louis not long after and spent every day golfing, playing tennis and swimming.

“The pro at the course took him under his wing,” Rod said. After that, Jordan became a golf course “junkie,” spending his days chipping and putting around Glen Echo, and generally keeping a golf club in his hands at all times. The family later moved to Mequon, Wis., and Jordan became genuinely hooked.

Jordan, tall and thin and the sole Oklahoma State player on this U.S. squad, counts major summer victories in the Wisconsin Match Play Championship, U.S. Amateur Public Links, Wisconsin Amateur and the Western Amateur. It created a stir around the young Wisconsin player that ultimately landed him on the U.S. team.

The technical reason behind that good play, however, is something Niebrugge discusses with remarkable calm. In short, Niebrugge just figured how to shave one or two strokes each round. The difference between a 72 and a 69, he realized, seems like a lot more than that. It seems maddeningly simple.

“A few more par saves, a few more birdies,” he reasoned.

Niebrugge’s coach Tom Anton, based out of Palm Desert, Calif., also is at National Golf Links. He stood to the side of No. 18 on Friday and illustrated proper technique as Niebrugge nodded along. During the practice sessions, Niebrugge has tried to soak up as much about the course and how it will play in a match-play format as possible. He’s leaned heavily on veteran Nathan Smith for guidance and advice.

Niebrugge is the only player on the U.S. team who didn’t attend the practice session for Walker Cup hopefuls early this spring in Naples, Fla. A practice session in late August allowed him to meet and bond with the rest of the team. Before that, he was the guy who teammates most often named as the player with whom they were the least familiar.

“This is one of the most down-to-Earth group of guys,” Niebrugge said. “They’ve kind of let me into the team pretty easily.”

The Niebrugge cheering contingent will be thick at National Golf Links. Rod has six siblings and all but one – a sister who resides in Italy – will be on the ground this week. Part of that is for his birthday, but a greater part is to cheer on Jordan.

“I could never imagine it,” Rod said of the Walker Cup berth.

It’s a fitting gift for a 50th birthday.

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