ROLAND, Ark. — Boiling a round of golf for the 111th Western Amateur championship down to 9 1/2 holes on an additional day after storms halted play on Sunday played more into the hands of Jordan Niebrugge than it did Sean Dale’s.
Dale, a 23-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla., and the 11th-ranked player in the Scratch Player World Amateur rankings, confessed later to being a notoriously slow starter, and that proved true throughout the Western Amateur at The Alotian Club in Roland. Dale had to fight from the middle of the pack to get into a playoff to make the Sweet Sixteen match-play portion — he was the last golfer in — where he then battled from behind in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds with heroic comebacks to make the title match.
Oklahoma State’s Niebrugge, meanwhile, jumped out fast all week. The slender, 6-foot-4 sophomore for the Cowboys was the first golfer in the 72-hole stroke play portion to hit 7-under, then 12-under, though he eventually finished third after 72 holes behind medalist Patrick Rodgers of Stanford.
He was the first one to the practice tee at 6:15 a.m. Monday and looked locked-in during his warm-up.
So when the golfers resumed their championship match at 7 a.m. all square and playing No. 9, with fog drifting eastward over the course, Niebrugge won the first three holes and was off and running to a 3 and 2 victory.
"The whole week has been incredible," Niebrugge said. "It’s pretty unbelievable." Actually his past 16 days have been simply amazing.
Niebrugge won the last U.S. Amateur Public Links championship that will ever be held — the United States Golf Association is dropping sponsorship of the past-its-time Publinks for a new four-ball event — and that assured him a spot in next year’s Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. Coming into the Western, Niebrugge was fresh off a win in the Wisconsin State Amateur in his home state.
Niebrugge realized three rounds into the tournament he just needed some help reading the greens. The soft-spoken OSU Cowboy hit a phenomenal 53 of 54 greens in regulation during the first three rounds. He hit the 12-under mark after 26 holes but played his final 46 in 1-over par. Patrick Rodgers of Stanford earned medalist honors.
"He was looking at lots of birdies but was just not quite reading the putts," said Alotian member and Little Rock businessman William Clark, whose family played host to Niebrugge in their home all week.
Clark and Niebrugge’s father decided he needed a little assistance, and not just to help him carry his college bag and clubs, which Niebrugge had done since Monday. On Friday, the last day of stroke play, Niebrugge handed his clubs over to 7-year veteran club caddie Brent Cook, who has caddied for Alotian club champion Stan Payne.
While easing the burden of walking the hilly course was one good reason to add a caddie late in the week, Niebrugge said of Cook: "Having his knowledge coming into these greens, he helped so much on the greens with the reads over and under ridges. That was the majority of the [caddie’s] help right there."
Before the third stoppage for lightning halted play for good Sunday, each finalist had won two holes. Niebrugge yanked his first drive of the match into trouble just before the first horn blew to stop play. He said Monday that he began to feel something positive in that match when the golfers returned for a few more holes.
Sunday’s play ended just after Niebrugge had hit a 9-iron from 165 with the ball above his feet to the back shelf of No. 9, 15 feet above the pin.
"I think that shot won him the tournament," Cook said Monday. "If he hadn’t made that shot and had lost that hole, you get behind like that coming back the next day and it’s a big momentum shift."
Instead, it was Dale who faced an uphill-chip third shot from off the front of the green to start Monday, and he came up 10 feet short. Though Niebrugge saw his birdie slide away from the hole, Dale missed his par putt and the lead was Niebrugge’s the rest of the way.
Both hit impressive approach shots from the fairway from only about 85 yards out on 10, but Dale pulled his left of the cup and Niebrugge dropped the birdie try from 7 feet. On the par-3, 175-yard 11th, both hit 8-iron draws. Niebrugge’s worked better to 7 feet uphill while Dale was left with 12 feet and a sidehill break. Niebrugge won again with birdie and was suddenly 3 up.
"I turned to my caddie and said, man, that was fast," Dale said.
The finalists halved 13 only because of Dale’s heroics getting up and down from the woods left after a hooked driver to the tempting green, with the tees up Monday at 335 yards. They halved 14 as well with birdies on the long par-5.
Dale’s game, like it had the previous to matches, finally came to life with little time left. He put an 8-iron from 160 yards on 15 to within 4 feet for birdie. But on No. 16, a par-3 at 225 yards, he left his shot out slightly right to the front right corner with the pin back left 50 feet away over two humps. Niebrugge didn’t have an easy putt either over one hump but safely got down in two. Dale’s 5-footer for par to extend the match lipped the cup.
Both golfers and many in this field that began with 156 players last Tuesday will head to Brookline, Mass., for the U.S. Amateur next week. Niebrugge and Dale also hope to land spots on the U.S. Walker Cup team. Dale then plans to turn professional while Niebrugge returns to Stillwater.
"You go into every tournament thinking you’re going to win, but you can never imagine winning three weeks in a row," Niebrugge said. "It’s such a tough test, a different golf course every week, a little different competitors at each. But I’ve been playing great these past couple of weeks, hitting some quality shots and fortunate enough make some putts.
"I was putting the ball great [Monday], hitting the ball really well. I almost made every putt I had today. I was really seeing the line. Brent really helped me on the lines this week … It was good seeing the ball go in the hole."