Bob Tway, Scott Verplank, Hunter Mahan, Casey Wittenberg, Trip Kuehne and Peter Uihlein are some of the former OSU golfers who were able to participate in the Masters as amateurs, and will certainly be able to offer Niebrugge advice on how to maneuver around the Augusta National course.
Niebrugge earned his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in the Masters with his impressive showing at the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship last July at Laurel Hill Golf Club in Lorton, Va. Throughout the week-long match-play event, the Cowboy golfer was dominant, trailing just two holes of the 114 he played during his six matches, including his 1-up victory over Michael Kim of the University of California in the 36-hole final.
In addition to the former Cowboys, he won't have to look far for advice in April. Niebrugge's caddy at the Masters will be OSU men's golf coach Alan Bratton, who previously caddied for Uihlein in 2011 when the former Cowboys All-American played in the Masters.
"It's going to be a wonderful experience for him. But it's not like he's just preparing (to play in the Masters)," Bratton said. "Focusing on the way you do well in that tournament is taking care of business every day during the year, preparing for the season, being a leader on the team … If he's getting better every single day, playing in the Masters will take care of itself."
Niebrugge knows that from firsthand experience. Last summer, following a freshman season at OSU in which he earned first team All-Big 12 recognition and was selected an honorable mention Ping All-American, the 6-foot-4 Cowboy became the player that Bratton and former OSU head coach Mike McGraw envisioned when they recruited him.
During a three-week stretch over the summer, the Wisconsin native won three different tournaments, including the Wisconsin State Amateur Championship and the Wisconsin State Golf Association Match Play Championship. He also won the previously mentioned U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and became the first OSU golfer since Scott Verplank in 1985 to take medalist honors at the Western Amateur Championship.
In addition, for his outstanding play throughout the summer of 2013, Niebrugge was rewarded with a spot on the U.S. Walker Cup team, where he helped the American team to a dominating 17-9 victory over the squad from Great Britain and Ireland. The OSU sophomore was 2-2 in his four matches.
"What an awesome summer, and what a good example to his teammates what you can do if you get on a roll," Bratton said. "Nobody expected him to play his way onto the Walker Cup team like he did, and he created some great opportunities for himself with the summer that he did have. That's the kind of player we thought he could be when we recruited him. It's nice to see him achieve those things so young, and now we get to see if he can back up those expectations."
Niebrugge said, "It was funny because I've always been a really good ball striker, but my putting and my short game was not where it needed to be, and that's what I worked on during the winter and spring. I think it was pretty funny because I missed the U.S. Amateur cut right before I went to the Pub Links. I think I had like 40 some putts each round. It was just awful. I was going to the Pub Links and I had no idea where my putting was going to be. But it was probably the best week of putting that I've ever had in my life."
The only other Cowboys golfer to ever reach the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship finals was Dayton Rose, who lost the final match in back to back years (2003 and 2004).
Niebrugge knows that expectations are now different as he enters the spring of his sophomore season. But, by no means he says, does it mean he's earned the right to be compared to such former Cowboys standouts as Bob Tway, Charles Howell, Hunter Mahan or Rickie Fowler.
"I think it just shows that you have to grab any opportunity you get," he said. "I was put in a pretty good situation. I was just taking it one match at a time (at the Public Links), and was playing Michael Kim in the finals. I looked at it as a no-lose opportunity for me. Everyone was expecting Michael Kim to win, so I didn't really have any pressure going into it. I knew I was just as good as him, if not better, so I just went out there intent on playing my best."
Bratton, however, points out that what Niebrugge accomplished is impressive.
"To be able to be the first do to something at Oklahoma State is pretty special because there are a lot of guys that have achieved a lot of things. I hope he takes pride in that. We've had some guys go play well in the Masters too, so maybe he can top all of them," the Cowboys head coach said referring to Wittenberg, who was the low amateur when he tied for 13th at the Masters in 2004, and Mahan, who tied for 28th in 2003.
Niebrugge knows that last summer's success means he'll enter every college tournament with a target on his back.
"We get reminded of the tradition every single day we're here. You see the Hall of Fame, all the pictures on the walls, all the bags in our locker room, all the pictures in the locker room, so you get reminded about it every day. There are higher expectations here. Coaches remind us of OSU golf history and tradition every day, and every time we go out on the road he reminds us we have such an extensive group of people watching that we've probably never met before but they're still rooting us on," he said.
Bratton says, "Fortunately, we've had a lot of experience with players who have had to deal with the same kind of thing. I think he's going to be just fine. I'm not worried about him. But that is a part of it. For our whole team, there's a lot of expectations at Oklahoma State. We want players that can handle that, and that can be a real benefit. That's helped guys raise their level of play.
He's already handled it on a small scale this summer, and I think he's rounding into his own and it should be a good semester for him."
(This story appeared in the most recent issue of Go Pokes Magazine. Click here to learn more about how to subscribe.)