Jordan Niebrugge has been passing his newfound abundance of time training the Cockapoo puppy the Mequon native and his girlfriend took in before they became largely confined to their Jupiter, Fla., apartment last week.
"Her name is Winnie," Niebrugge said of the 4½-pound puppy. "She's been playful and a spark of happiness in our life right now."
Dan Woltman is back home in Sun Prairie with wife/caddie Merissa, balancing his television binge-watching between “Ozark” on Netflix and any of the classic games featuring his beloved Milwaukee Brewers, Milwaukee Bucks, Green Bay Packers or Wisconsin Badgers.
“Those are my four teams; I watch every game for all four of them,” Woltman was saying via telephone recently. “It’s odd to sit here and watch old games just to pass the time because you can’t watch live sports. ... It’s an interesting time.”
Since the first precautions linked to the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic were taken, it has been an interesting time in the professional golf ranks, to say the least.
When the PGA Tour announced March 17 that it was suspending play for at least two months on the Korn Ferry Tour – its top developmental tour for aspiring golfers such as Niebrugge and Woltman – it touched off a work stoppage the likes of which the two Wisconsin golfers have never experienced.
This is the second full season on the Korn Ferry Tour for Niebrugge, 26, and his fifth year as a professional after a decorated career at Oklahoma State. Woltman, 33, who regained exempt status this year, has been playing the circuit off and on since 2010.
“I just miss playing, really,” Niebrugge said from his home in Jupiter, where Palm Beach County golf courses have been closed for little more than a week. “I can’t even play at home. … It’s kind of tough because we were just starting the season. We only had like six events in.
“But it is what it is. I look at it as a little reset button. I’m just trying to stay somewhat sharp.”
Both Niebrugge and Woltman were in need of a reset.
Woltman made just two cuts in six starts and Niebrugge just one to start the Korn Ferry Tour season, which took them from the Bahamas to Panama and onto Colombia before a stop in Florida on their way to Mexico. Neither finished better than Woltman’s tie for 54th in Panama.
“That’s what we were so excited about,” Woltman said. “Five of the first six events were (outside the United States). We were getting back stateside with the familiarity of the courses; I’ve played a lot of them. They were places we like to go. … One good week can change everything for a year. The problem right now is we don’t have that opportunity because we can’t play.”
The initial rounds of postponements idled the Korn Ferry Tour through May 17, one week before the Evans Scholar Invitational at The Glen Club in suburban Chicago. At least as of now, events are scheduled 12 of the 13 weeks after that through the Korn Ferry Tour Championship the last week of August.
Six of the first eight events that fell victim to coronavirus-related scheduling adjustments were labeled as cancellations, suggesting that the schedule could be extended at the end of the season. That, of course, will depend on whether the current hiatus is extended and how the Korn Ferry Tour aligns with the PGA Tour schedule for the balance of the 2019-20 season.
“There’s nothing we can really do about when we’re going to play,” Niebrugge said. “We just have to get ready for it, I guess. I’m sure they’ll give us enough time to prepare for when we’re playing (again) and where we’re playing. After this week, we would have been playing the rest of the year straight out, basically. I imagine it’s going to look something similar to that.”
That’s why Woltman has taken advantage of the five-plus weeks since his last Korn Ferry start to rest his body and his mind.
The former University of Wisconsin golfer from Beaver Dam earned Korn Ferry status Dec. 15 when he made seven birdies in a row en route to a closing 66 that got him inside the top 30, guaranteeing him at least eight starts in 2020. His first event began Jan. 15 in The Bahamas.
“I haven’t touched a club in (four) weeks,” Woltman said. “It was a quick turnaround where there was no mental break. We said ‘OK, this is an unfortunate situation. We’ll use this as the winter break that you normally get.’ Normally, I take four weeks off in winter where I don’t touch a club.
“(When he does return), we’re going to be playing every single week. You want to be as fresh as possible for those events. Hardly anybody is going to be skipping events because they will be so much more valuable now that, ‘Hey, you might have only 13 or 14 events until finals.’ ”
Still, with courses around them closed by stay-at-home orders, they are looking forward to the all-clear and having the chance to resume a normal practice routine.
For now, Woltman has a putting mat in his home and has set up a net with a TrackMan in his garage. Niebrugge, who was able to play in Florida until a week ago, is now focusing on "getting outside" or doing modified workouts with his gym and apartment workout facility both closed.
"In my lifetime, never did I think something like this would happen," Woltman said, "where things would just get shut down."
Fortunately for the two Wisconsin golfers, they have enjoyed enough success in the last few years to feel less of a pinch financially than many of the golfers on the Korn Ferry Tour.
Of the 317 golfers who cashed a check on the tour in 2019, only 59 earned more than $100,000 for the year. The average earnings of the remaining golfers in the top 150 was $60,122 – a rather paltry salary considering that group was also on the hook for an average of 17 weeks of hotel stays, air and ground travel and meals as they made their way from stop to stop.
Fortunately, according to Niebrugge, the PGA Tour has stepped up to help financially strapped Korn Ferry Tour members with a series of assistance programs. He was not familiar with the details, but believed they were similar to the advanced-payment options that Golf Channel reported last week were among the programs being implemented for PGA Tour golfers.
“I feel like they’re doing … everything they can to help us out,” Niebrugge said. “Especially on the Korn Ferry Tour, some guys are going year-to-year and grind it through, which is tough. … You don’t have much guaranteed money based off your play. When you’re not playing, it’s tough to make money. It’s awesome to see that they have stepped up and are helping us out.”