Niebrugge knocks off Kim in thrilling APL finale

Jordan Niebrugge during the U.S. Amateur Public Links.

Jordan Niebrugge during the U.S. Amateur Public Links.

LORTON, Va. – Jordan Niebrugge was leaking oil big-time as he began the stretch run against Michael Kim on Saturday in the 36-hole final match in the 88th U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Laurel Hill Golf Club.

The Oklahoma State sophomore surged to a 4-up command with 10 holes to play and appeared to be on his way to an easy victory.

But Kim, a junior at California and ranked No. 2 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, was hardly about to pack it up and give away the trophy.

The first-team All-American and winner of this season’s Jack Nicklaus and Haskins awards as college player of the year, battled back, and suddenly Niebrugge’s lead was 1 up with five holes to play.

Finally, Niebrugge, an honorable-mention All-American from Mequon, Wis., was able to plug that leak and went on to halve the final five holes for a thrilling 1-up victory.

Not only did it give Niebrugge the biggest win of his young career and his first USGA championship, but it earned him an invitation to compete next spring at the Masters.

“Right now, it’s hard to put it all into words,” Niebrugge said. “The best way to put it is awesome. I’ve been playing well since last spring. I was able to make clutch putts all week, and I did that again today.

“Obviously to win a USGA championship is huge,” he said. “For me, I feel it takes my game to the next level.”

And about that little get-together in Augusta, Ga., with the world’s greatest players?

“To play in the Masters is a dream-come-true for any golfer – junior, amateur, whoever,” said Niebrugge, who had his father, Rod, on the bag all week. “(Augusta National) is the one course in the entire world I would like to play, and now I will have that opportunity.”

How impressive was Niebrugge all week? Consider that in his six matches, four times Niebrugge did not go past the 16th hole and only twice in the 114 holes he played did he trail in a match – after the second hole in the semifinals and after the first hole in the finals. Both deficits were erased on his next hole.

For Kim, who earlier in the week was one of five players named to this year’s U.S. Walker Cup team, it was a hard-fought setback.

“Sure, I’m disappointed,” said Kim, of Del Mar, Calif. “I played solid all day, all week, but Jordan played a little better. He deserves all the credit. He played great. He made only one bogey today, so I knew I had to make birdies to win holes.

“I just seemed to lose focus the first nine holes this afternoon,” said Kim, who was low amateur at this year’s U.S. Open. “I was able to make a comeback, and I’m proud of that. I just ran out of holes.”

In the morning 18, Kim won the first hole with a birdie, but Niebrugge, wearing a bright orange Cowboys shirt, came back to win holes 2, 3 and 5 and go 2 up. Kim won the seventh and eighth to square the match, and Niebrugge was able to take a 1-up lead at the break after a birdie at the 17th.

Niebrugge got it going early in the afternoon session. He won the 20th and 22nd holes with birdies and then took the 24th with a par.

But there was no quit in Kim. He won the 27th hole, No. 9, with a birdie, his first hole win since No. 8 in the morning, and then the 30th with a birdie. When Kim made par at the 31st for a win, Niebrugge’s lead was 1 up.

Kim all but saw his hopes drowned when he hit his second shot at the 36th hole, the par-5 18th, into the water that guards the right side of the green. Niebrugge decided to play it safe and lay up, and then his approach shot came to rest just off the green, some 20 feet from the hole.

Kim’s fourth shot was to within 6 feet, but when Niebrugge chipped to within a foot both putts were conceded and this year’s APL came to an end.

“I know how great a player Michael is and all the things he’s done in college and amateur golf,” Niebrugge said. “Going into today, I just told myself to focus on playing the golf course. I felt if I played the course like I had all week, I’d be able to hang in there with him. I wanted to make sure that if he was going to beat me, it would have to be with birdies.”

That certainly was the case as Niebrugge made just one bogey – a three-putt on the 31st hole – over the 36-hole final.

“He put the pressure on me, especially on the last 10, 11 holes and got back to within one,” said Niebrugge, who was heading home to Wisconsin where he would be teeing it up Monday in the state amateur. “I just tried to stay focused, and that’s what I did those last five holes.”

What this victory also did was earn Niebrugge a starting spot in this year’s U.S. Amateur field at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Two days before leaving for the APL, he was unsuccessful in his sectional qualifier.

“So that’s another nice perk,” he said.

The USAPL will have its last hurrah next July when it takes place at Sand Creek Station Golf Club in Newton, Kan. Earlier, the USGA announced it was discontinuing this championship for public-course players, with plans to replace it with a national four-ball championship.

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