A guide to all the players you should watch in the unlikely event they appear on TV.
Nothing says major championship like a lot of amateurs, Europeans, and mid-level Web.com tour players all somehow managing to front-, back-, and side-door their ways into the tournament. At the U.S. Open, 156 players in the field means 156 great storylines, many of which we’ll never see again. Unfortunately, golf coverage can be a little narrow-minded when it comes to major championship weeks, and many of these stories pass by unexplored.
We can be certain that we don’t need to talk about a few things:
- The thick fescue
- Jordan Spieth’s 2-year major drought (eye roll)
- Mike Davis’ job security
- The cut-down fescue
- Dustin Johnson’s distance advantage
- A thorough history of the Erin Hills landscape, and the fescue
This article takes a quick look at three players’ unique stories that have caught my eye this week.
Home Sweet Home
There’s nothing like qualifying for the first ever U.S. Open held in your home state, and that’s exactly what someone other than Steve Stricker did.
Jordan Niebrugge spent most of his childhood in Wisconsin and will hit the opening tee shot of the tournament at 6:45am on Thursday morning. As Tim Collamore wrote in his great U.S. Open preview, Jordan is patiently working his way through the ranks of the Mackenzie Tour (PGA Tour Canada), with a smattering of PGA Tour and Web.com events thrown in. He played the Walker Cup twice as a part of a remarkable amateur career, which included him recording the lowest total score by an amateur in Open Championship history. That piece of information could make a great trivia question — if you can remember how to pronounce Jordan’s brutishly-Midwestern last name. Good luck.
This week, he’ll play his first U.S. Open and fourth major championship (one Masters, two Opens). There’s a lot to like about this guy, and I’m cautious when it comes to making predictions, but I’ll say it wouldn’t surprise me to see him play well. Being from Wisconsin, he has played Erin Hills 10-15 times (in his own estimation), saying that most of those were in competitive settings. Undoubtedly, that makes him one of the most experienced players on this golf course.
In other news, he possesses copious amounts of wind-ignorant pop off the tee. Dial up 56 of these, please:
Decent way to start for @jniebs5…
6-under thru eight holes, then this laser drive at the first. pic.twitter.com/KaMZPqkVau
— Mackenzie Tour (@PGATOURCanada) June 2, 2017
I’d be lying if I told you that his ball flight is ideal for courses like Erin Hills. It’s ideal for any course, ever. Hoping to see a strong showing from Jordan this week.
Up next, one of the best storylines of the week is Bryson DeChambeau’s incredible…hahaha I hope you didn’t believe that for a second.
The Second Swede
For a spot-on description of Alex Noren, visit his website, alexnoren.com. On it, you will find a singular page that reads “New website coming soon.”
That says it all. Noren has blindsided everyone—even his own website designer—with his meteoric rise in the OWGR. He is taking the whole Kuchar-backdoor-top-10 move and applying it to not just one tournament, but the whole ranking system. It’s a kind of subtle savagery unseen since the days of “World No. 1” Luke Donald. Seriously, the only thing more impressive than Noren’s recent performance is the lack of attention it’s received. He plays on the European Tour, I get it, but this dude is for real. He has won five (FIVE!) European Tour events since last July. How has Noren been able to fly so completely under the radar? I don’t know, but it won’t stay that way for long.
For those who don’t know much about Noren, he is 34 and a graduate of Oklahoma State. The general vibe around him is that he has gotten in the way of his own potential throughout his career — former Oklahoma St. head coach Mike Holder said as much in a recent interview with Tim Rosaforte. In 2014, Noren developed tendinitis in both wrists from the sheer quantity of balls he hit on the range. He was sidelined for most of that season, but maybe that was the wake-up call he needed?
In my opinion, he seems to be radiating shades of Dufner, who fought for years to get his Tour card and then exploded onto the scene with a run in 2012-2013 that culminated in a decisive PGA Championship win. I’m not not implying that Noren has an excellent chance to win a big one. Personally, I’d love to see him play full-time on the PGA Tour, so I have more highlight reels like this (maybe he’ll bring the commentator with him):
— GolfLive24.com (@GolfLive24com) May 28, 2017
In his last two U.S. Open appearances, he has missed the cut twice. Know what that means? Nothing. He’ll play well.
The Triple Crown?
Sergio Garcia isn’t the only one with a chance to keep his major streak alive this weekend. Stewart Hagestad, 26-year-old amateur and former college player at Southern Cal, will compete for his second straight low amateur award at a major. Then, if he qualifies for the Open Championship in July, he could go for the trifecta of “Low-Am” at all three majors that have amateurs in the field. Call it a stretch, but I really think it’s possible.
As a self-proclaimed lifelong amateur who plans to return to business school in the fall, Stewart is a kind of layman’s hero, representing the glimmer of hope that someone who works a day job can hold his own against the pros. To be fair, he has taken a lot of time off to prepare for the Masters and now the U.S. Open, but it’s still impressive. Stewart gives a mid-major college golfer like myself some encouragement that maybe my game won’t slowly wither into disrepair after my NCAA career has ended. A man can hope.
On the other hand, Hagestad has enough money lying around so that he doesn’t have to work his day job and can still pay for his memberships at several clubs (one of which he played in the sectional qualifier). We probably aren’t as similar as I’d like to think.
Something I didn’t know is that Hagestad was actually not exempt for this tournament as the 2016 Mid-Am champ. That means he stood toe-to-toe with some really, really good players last Monday in order to qualify. Add that to the list of his recent accomplishments. You hear this about a lot of players, but Stewart really seems to embrace the big stage. Maybe it’s because he knows he has to sit in class next fall.
Unquestionably, I’ll be pulling hard for him out there. On a side note, Tron and I are planning a more in-depth look at Stewart, so stay tuned for that one.
Enjoy the tournament. If you see these players on TV, watch them. And if you haven’t already, be sure to check out Tim Collamore’s full tournament preview.