In Their First Rodeo, Cowboy Trio Makes the Weekend
June 16, 2017 Erin, Wis. By Ron Driscoll, USGA
Ex-Oklahoma State teammates Kevin Dougherty (right), Talor Gooch (left) and Mequon, Wis., resident Jordan Niebrugge not only were grouped the first two rounds, but all three made the cut. (USGA/JD Cuban)

It wasn’t Stillwater, Okla., but it might have seemed that way on Friday afternoon.

“We all hit it within 15 feet on No. 17 and we all birdied,” said Kevin Dougherty of his three-player grouping. “We also all hit it inside of 10 feet on No. 4 and played the hole in a combined 2 under.”

However, this wasn’t a friendly game among teammates on Oklahoma State University’s Karsten Creek Golf Club. Not to mention that the holes in question – the par-4 fourth and 17th at Erin Hills – played as the two toughest over the first two rounds of the 117th U.S. Open Championship.

The Cowboy imprint on this year’s U.S. Open began on Thursday morning, when Wisconsin native and former OSU All-American Jordan Niebrugge struck the first tee shot of the championship at 6:45 a.m., followed by Talor Gooch and Dougherty. The latter two played four years together, while Niebrugge was a teammate for the final two.

“There were still the first-tee jitters,” said Dougherty, 26, of Murrieta, Calif., who followed former high school teammate Rickie Fowler to Stillwater. “It was my and Talor’s first major. If you’re not feeling it, you’re playing the wrong sport. Still, playing with two of your really good buddies, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Niebrugge has played in three previous majors – the 2014 Masters and the 2015 and 2016 Open Championships at St. Andrews and Royal Troon, respectively – and his résumé also includes winning the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links title and representing the USA on two Walker Cup Teams (2013 and 2015). After getting into the championship out of the Lakewood, Wash., sectional qualifier, the USGA saw an opportunity to allow the Mequon, Wis., resident to kick off the first U.S. Open in his home state.

Asked whether he felt more pressured or relaxed by the atmosphere, Niebrugge hesitated.

“I think a little bit of both, you know? You’re going to be nervous in any event, especially of this magnitude. But playing in front of the home crowd, encouraging you every step of the way is pretty cool.”

The Cowboys seemed to thrive in general, as all three made the cut. Dougherty, who made his PGA Tour debut in the Genesis Open in February (missed cut), led the trio at 1-under 143 (71-72). Gooch (74-71) and Niebrugge (73-72) both ended up at 1 over, making the cut on the number.

“Obviously in school, you play with each other on an every-day basis,” said Gooch, 25, of Midwest City, Okla., who competes on the Web.com Tour. “But rarely do you get to play with them in a tournament. To play together in the first group of the U.S. Open, the stars aligned. The whole atmosphere was very comforting.”

Three other Cowboys made the field this week, and Fowler led the way on Thursday with a 7-under 65, his best round in 30 major-championship starts. He is tied for fifth through two rounds, while fellow former All-America players Peter Uihlein, the 2010 U.S. Amateur champion, and world No. 8 Alex Noren both missed the cut.

The Cowboy lineage runs some 70 years and 10 national titles, from founding coach Labron Harris through Mike Holder, Mike McGraw and now Alan Bratton. Its alumni include major champion Bob Tway as well as established PGA Tour players through the decades, including 1999 U.S. Senior Open champion Dave Eichelberger, Mark Hayes, Bob May, 1984 U.S. Amateur champion Scott Verplank, 1999 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Hunter Mahan, Charles Howell and Bo Van Pelt.

“Rickie invited me to visit for a weekend when he was a freshman and I was a high-school junior,” said Dougherty. “I fell in love with it the first day. It’s something that no one will understand unless they’re part of it. It’s just a brotherhood, and it doesn’t matter if they graduated in 1970 or they’re [class of] 2020.”

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.