Augusta, Ga. – Minnesota sports fans are a tortured lot. They have ignored a salve. If they would consider themselves Upper Midwest fans, they could claim a bunch of Super Bowl victories, could have cheered for Brett Favre for 18 years instead of two and could celebrate when a local team such as North Dakota State makes the NCAA tournament.
Masters week might be a good time to make like Putin and annex adjoining states. Minnesota has produced one world-class golfer in recent decades: Tom Lehman. The next world-beater from the frozen tundra might be Jordan Niebrugge, who lives in Mequon, Wis.
Niebrugge — don’t worry about pronouncing it correctly; his father said different relatives say it different ways — is a 20-year-old sophomore at Oklahoma State. Last summer, he won the Wisconsin match play championship, the U.S. Amateur Public Links championship, Wisconsin State amateur and the Western Amateur. He became the second player ever, along with Mark Wilson, to win the “Wisconsin Slam.”
Then he won both of his matches at the Walker Cup and, with Scottie Scheffler, won the team competition at the Spirit International Golf Championship, while tying for the individual lead.
Golf is not a sport that lends itself to constant winning, even at the amateur level. “There’s no limit to what he can achieve, I think,” said fellow Wisconsinite Steve Stricker. “It looks like he’s got it all. It looks like he’s the whole package.”
The Public Links title earned Niebrugge (sounds like Knee-Brew-Gee, or Knee-Burj-ee, or “Jordan”) a berth in this year’s Masters. So there he was on Tuesday at Augusta National, playing a practice round alongside Stricker while learning he would play his first round Thursday alongside former Masters champion Mark O’Meara.
Playing the Masters is heady stuff even for someone of legal drinking age, but Niebrugge leavened his awe with intent. “I have a couple of goals,” he said. “Top amateur — I think that’s pretty attainable. I think a top-15 is probably my main goal. It would be pretty cool to be top 15 and be able to come here next year.”
He’s almost 6-5 — so tall his feet hang over the end of the bed at Augusta National’s famed Crow’s Nest apartment, traditional home to amateur competitors — and lean as a graphite shaft. On the driving range and while playing alongside Stricker, Boo Weekley and Russell Henley on Tuesday, Niebrugge (sounds like Knee-Bru-ghee) hit it as far as anyone.
That he sought to play a practice round with Stricker speaks to Niebrugge’s savvy. Stricker is one of the world’s best putters, and one of the PGA Tour’s foremost gentlemen.
“When we saw him in recruiting, we saw that he had just huge potential,” said Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton, who is caddying for Niebrugge this week. “He does, and he’s still a very young, kind of underexposed player. He picks things up really quickly.
“Today, Steve Stricker was very helpful. He cares about the local kid, and wow, the shots he has are amazing.”
Niebrugge felt most awed on the first tee Tuesday, and while taking the traditional practice-round skip-it-across-the-pond shot to the 16th green, Stricker schooled him.
Niebrugge’s shot made it to land, but Stricker bagged something more rare than a birdie: a turtle. His shot caromed into a turtle sunning on the banks and knocked it into the water. For the rest of the day, fans at the 16th chanted “Turtle!” at every golfer.
“Pretty cool,” Niebrugge said, using what appears to be his favorite phrase, and what might be the best description of a 20-year-old who doesn’t seem intimidated by the Masters.
“I’m not nervous now, but I’m sure I’ll be nervous on the first tee,” he said. “I think Aaron Rodgers was talking about it a few years ago in the NFC Championship Game. He said, ‘If you’re not nervous, you really don’t care.’ ”
Does Niebrugge always quote Packers?
“No,” he said, noting he was born in suburban St. Louis. “I don’t like the Packers.”
So Niebrugge might be the perfect honorary, or annexed, Minnesotan.