Spring Lake golf star Nick Krueger can most frequently be found launching tee shots or working on his short game at Spring Lake Country Club. He may be talking to his teammates, but that would likely also be about golf.
The Lakers are headed to Michigan State’s Forest Akers West this weekend to compete in the Division 2 state finals. Krueger, a Grand Valley State signee, had qualified for state as an individual last year, finishing second overall with rounds of 70-71 at Bedford Valley Golf Course. This year, however, he will have the whole team competing alongside him.
In a curious scheduling decision, the Lakers were forced to travel all the way up to Gaylord for regionals, placing third at Gaylord Country Club to punch a team ticket into state finals. Krueger thought it was a long trip for just 18 holes of golf.
“It was a little weird (traveling that far to play one round of golf),” said Krueger, who shot a 72. “I’m used to traveling longer distances for three rounds, but not just one. In the end you’re still just playing golf, so I tried to focus on that.
“It helped that we went up a day early to loosen up, see the course, and not just hop out of the car and start playing.”
Krueger, an experienced golfer who plays big tournaments outside of high school, often traveling throughout the summer, has plenty of experience playing new courses. For regionals, Krueger had to utilize a strategy to ensure he and his team kept their season alive.
“When playing unfamiliar courses, I just try to hit a lot of fairways,” he said. “I try not to do anything super aggressive because I’m not as familiar with the course, so I don’t know all the clubs I need to hit into greens and what might be lying in front of me.
“So, in those instances, I’m not focused on shooting super-low scores, but I’m trying not to shoot super high. I just play a little more conservatively to avoid big numbers.”
Experience and confidence won’t be an issue at Forest Akers West, as Krueger has enjoyed past success at MSU’s home course. All golfers have certain courses that fit their eye. When they play there they know they are going to shoot a low score. For Krueger, that course is Forest Akers West.
“I like Forest Akers because I’m more familiar with it and I can get more aggressive than other players would,” Krueger said. “Usually, throughout the high school season I’m playing courses I’m not super familiar with. But at state finals I’m trying to win, and I want to do my best for the team, so I’m going to try and shoot the best score I can, which means I will play more aggressively at state than I normally would.
“I usually have great success (at Forest Akers). Two years ago, in a tournament, I shot a 68 there, and I’ve consistently had nice rounds there. I usually match up pretty nicely at that course.”
Although Krueger is comfortable at Forest Akers West, his teammates may be in for a rude awakening if inexperienced on the setup. Forest Akers West is a college Division I golf course for a reason. It features slick putting surfaces and a myriad of challenges tee-to-green. The course’s length could also be uncomfortable for most high school athletes used to playing high school yardages. Forest Akers West could play anywhere from 6,400 to 6,800 yards. Normal high school yardage is usually 6,000 to 6,300, so there could be an adjustment.
“I think our team will handle a (longer course) pretty well,” Krueger said. “Every year we play pretty far back for the O-K Blue Conference tournament, which is a solid 6,600 yards. Everyone on the team has also played rounds on the back tees at Spring Lake Country Club, so I think we will handle it better than most teams.
“Chance (Fry) is experienced in the tournament play, and he’s been to the state finals with us a couple years ago, so that’s huge. Evan (McDermott) has also played in some big tournaments, so he shouldn’t be too fazed either, which should help us make a pretty good run at state.”
With that being said, Krueger admitted that at least four holes at Forest Akers West could be an issue for everyone competing.
“(The par 3s at Forest Akers West) are tough for everyone,” he said. “They play like 200 yards, and they make for a tough par. It doesn’t matter who you are; those are tough holes. You have to hit a good shot. You can’t get too upset with yourself if you make a bogey on one of those holes because there will be birdie chances somewhere else.”
Individually, Krueger has a chance to win this weekend. He has proven his ability to play well at Forest Akers West. He is fresh off a top-two finish at state finals a year ago, and he has become a much more consistent player this season.
“Part of the reason I’ve been more consistent this year is because I’m learning how to score,” Krueger said. “Even if I’m not playing my best, I’m doing better this year at keeping the high scores to a minimum and scraping out scores when I’m not completely in my best form”
However, Division 2 golf in the state of Michigan features some elite talent, including Michigan State signee Brad Smithson, out of Forest Hills Eastern, and Mason’s Alex Jordan, who won D2 state finals last year. Smithson fired a 66 at regionals, and he will likely come to East Lansing with something to prove, playing on his future home course.
While individual honors are in Krueger’s sights, he’s still more focused on team success. Krueger is confident Spring Lake can compete for All-State honors, but he mentioned a few teams who could stand in the team’s way.
“DeWitt is really good; they posted a low number at regional,” Krueger said of a DeWitt team that featured four kids under 80 at regionals, including Charlie DeLong’s 66. “Forest Hills Northern is also a good team. We (have hung with them before), so we can definitely compete against them. Our team is good at managing difficult courses, so I think we will perform well at Forest Akers as a team.”
Growing into the game of golf
Since the Tiger Woods era, golf has become a much more fashionable sport. Woods proved that golf requires athleticism, stamina and a strong mentality just like contact sports. His dominance opened the sport up to many aspiring young fans. Krueger didn’t necessarily see himself as a star golfer growing up, but he quickly realized it was his favorite sport.
“I never knew I would grow up to be the player I am now,” he said. “But there’s just something about being outside and being with your friends and away from your phone. I like the feeling of rolling in birdies and seeing putts fall. I love that part.
“I used to play a lot of soccer, and then there was one day where I realized I liked soccer, but I wished I had time to play more golf. That’s when I started adjusting towards more golf time and less soccer time, which was around sixth or seventh grade. I love practicing golf. I never get bored with it. I like hitting shots. There’s nothing better than hitting crisp iron shots.”
Woods may have made golf more popular, but Krueger tries to emulate his game toward a different PGA Tour star.
“I like the way Justin Thomas plays,” Krueger said of the 2017 PGA Championship winner. “I admire the way he plays. He’s really smart. He hits it long, and I don’t hit it super long, but long enough.
“(Thomas) is not like a (Dustin Johnson) who mashes it down the fairway. Justin plays to his spots. He’s long (off the tee), but he’s smart. He’s a great iron player and hits a lot of greens. I like to model my game after that because it’s hard to shoot high numbers when you are playing to your spots and playing intelligently.”
This weekend, at Forest Akers West, Krueger has the chance to end his high school golf career with an emphatic statement, competing against two soon-to-be teammates at Grand Valley and a future Spartan. But Krueger, unlike many high school stars with college careers already lined up, rarely speaks about his college scholarship, instead focusing on the task at hand. That’s why Krueger, and the rest of the Lakers golf team, should find success this weekend in East Lansing.