LORTON, Va. (July 19, 2013) -- Michael Kim introduced himself to a national audience this June at Merion. Now, he’s one win away from putting his name on a USGA trophy.
Kim, the low amateur at the 2013 U.S. Open, and Jordan Niebrugge each won two matches Friday to advance to Saturday's 36-hole final of the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship being conducted 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.
Kim, 20, of Del Mar, Calif., has received just about every collegiate honor possible in the past year while playing for the University of California-Berkeley. He won four events in his sophomore season (2012-13); was named Pac-12 Conference Golfer of the Year and first-team All-American; and won the Jack Nicklaus Award and the Fred Haskins Award for national player of the year. He also represented the United States on the 2013 Palmer Cup Team and, earlier this week, was named to the 2013 USA Walker Cup Team.
In the semifinals, Kim played long-time friend and fellow San Diegan, Eric Sugimoto, 19. The players halved the first five holes before Sugimoto struck first with a long birdie putt at the sixth. Kim quickly responded with wins on the next three holes. He drove it in the front greenside bunker on No. 7 and made the up-and-down for birdie. On Nos. 8 and 9, Kim took advantage of bogeys by Sugimoto to take a 2-up lead at the turn. A steady diet of fairways, greens and two-putts kept Kim ahead the rest of the way.
“I didn’t make any bogeys in the afternoon round,” said Kim, who did not have a single 5 on his scorecard. “If you do that, you’re going to be tough to beat.”
With the chance to earn a USGA title just one win away, Kim let himself consider the possibility.
“It would mean a lot,” said Kim, who defeated Robby Shelton IV, 17, of Wilmer, Ala., 1 up, in the quarterfinals. “I look around at the banners that are up [around the course] of previous winners – Trevor Immelman, Brandt Snedeker, Tim Clark. A lot of guys who have won this [championship] have gone on to have great careers in golf. To add my name to that list would be pretty special.”
His opponent in the championship match, Jordan Niebrugge, 19, of Mequon, Wis., continued his own impressive march through the APL field with a 4-and-3 victory over James Erkenbeck, 23, of San Diego.
For the first time in the championship, Niebrugge trailed in a match when Erkenbeck won the second hole with a birdie. The deficit was short-lived, however, as Niebrugge promptly won the third hole with a par and the 166-yard fourth with a birdie. Erkenbeck squared the match with a birdie at the seventh, but Niebrugge pulled ahead for good with back-to-back birdies on the ninth and 10th.
“Today was tough,” said Niebrugge, who defeated Zecheng Dou, 16, of The People’s Republic of China, 1 up, in the quarterfinals. “Thirty-six [holes] today [meant] your legs were getting tired, so you had some errant shots, but I just reminded myself about posture and started hitting it a little better. Overall, I played great.”
The key to Niebrugge’s success this week has been his putting, which had been an area of concern coming into Laurel Hill.
“It’s funny because at the U.S. Amateur qualifier I had 35 or 40 putts both rounds – just not acceptable,” said Niebrugge. “My speed is much better here and I’ve been making a lot of 15- and 20-footers. When you’re doing that and hitting the ball well, you’re going to score pretty well.”
Niebrugge credits his coaches at Oklahoma State University for instilling confidence in him during his freshman season. His goal was to finish in the top-five of every tournament he played in – and Niebrugge has responded with better focus and renewed determination. Though he knows playing against the No. 2-ranked amateur in the world is a daunting task, Niebrugge is excited for the challenge.
“I think I’m playing well enough to stay with anybody right now,” he said. “I’ve been under par every match. If I keep doing that, I’ll keep the match close. That’s the main goal: Keep it close and you never know what can happen.”
With the players going 36 holes for the second day in a row, the extreme weather conditions were a factor once again. Temperatures in Fairfax County reached 98 degrees, with the Heat Index topping out at 108.
“We usually complain whenever the wind picks up because the course plays harder,” said Kim. “But the last few days we were so happy when it was blowing so we could stay a little cooler.”
“It was tough to stay cool out there,” said Niebrugge. “I drank about 30 waters today.”
Both players will battle hot and humid conditions again tomorrow in the 36-hole championship match, which is scheduled to begin at 7 a.m. EDT.
As finalists, both Kim and Niebrugge have earned exemptions into next month’s U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. They are also exempt from local qualifying for next year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort. The champion, if he remains an amateur, will receive an exemption into next year’s APL, a gold medal, custody of the James D. Standish Trophy for the year and will likely receive an invitation to the 2014 Masters. The runner-up receives an exemption into next year’s APL and a silver medal.