wgolfphoto10/13

Kate Owens looks for the ball. 

She didn’t even know she beat it. 

JMU women’s golf redshirt junior Kate Owens, the new program all-time leader in par-or-better rounds with 20, said she misinterpreted the record and thought she needed to shoot under par in her second round at the Sept. 24-26 Lady Paladin Invitational to be engraved in the record books. 

“I was fortunate that I probably didn’t read that record completely correctly because I probably would have been a little more nervous than I was,” Owens said. “It’s easy to get really close to record, and once you’re aware of it and you’re close, I think whether you want them to or not, like, nerves set in, and you kind of start playing a little more in your conscious mind.”

Though Owens said she didn’t expect to break the record then, women’s golf head coach Tommy Baker said his and Owens’ reaction had to be “business as usual” since there was five hours of golf yet to play.

Owens’ reaction spoke for itself through her performance at Lady Paladin — beyond the record, she finished first among her JMU cohort, sixth in a 72-golfer field and was one of five golfers at the three-day event to not have a round over par. She said playing on Bermuda grass — the same surface she grew up competing on — helped her “be okay with her misses” and build confidence through the tournament. 

This maturity — to not “rest on [her] laurels” after setting a record, as Baker said — crystalized for Owens during her upbringing. Coming into the program, Baker said Owens’ game was “as well put together as anyone” that came through JMU. 

“You could tell she was someone who was very well organized, very well mannered,” Baker said, referring to his first interactions with then-freshman Owens. “Her parents did a phenomenal job raising her and allowing her to be independent, responsible for her own activities.”

Owens’ father immersed her in golf at a young age, she said, through playing on their neighborhood course with other kids in her Georgia hometown. Owens and her father would putt for quarters then get “cherry Coke and popcorn” after practicing. There was also a fence on the course’s bottom range — roughly 50-60 yards away, Owens said — that the neighborhood kids would try to hit golf balls over. 

Her young golf counterparts couldn’t. Owens could. 

“My dad went, ‘Okay, well, I guess maybe she’ll be decent at golf,’” Owens said. “He took me to go see [a coach] because he didn’t know the first thing about competitive golf.”

As she progressed in golf alongside softball growing up, being from Georgia meant playing golf at JMU wasn’t really on her radar. That was until Owens was watching ESPN’s College GameDay with her father — the Oct. 24, 2015, edition in Harrisonburg for then-No. 5 JMU vs. No. 13 Richmond — and noticed something similar. 

“I actually saw [JMU’s golf] van at a tournament,” Owens said. “We were watching [College GameDay], and I went, ‘Okay that’s really pretty; this place looks really cool.’ So after that I … set up a visit, and I came here and I absolutely loved it.”

Now, that youthful exuberance for golf is reciprocated through Owens’ gravitation toward all things “golf culture” — golf podcasts, golf history and her affinity for golf course architecture. A self-proclaimed “golf nerd,” Owens said one of her favorite books is “A Course Called Ireland: A Long Walk in Search of a Country, a Pint, and the Next Tee” about author Tom Coyne’s travels through the country’s golf courses, paying tribute to who built them and how.  

“My dad and my family was always great about really keeping [golf] fun for me,” Owens said. “Nobody was ever really forcing me to be out there.”

Even though she’s always loved golf, being a natural leader wasn’t in the cards early in her JMU career, Baker said. Much of that changed, he said, after the Lake Oconee Invitational last February — where JMU finished 15th of 15 teams. 

It was a silent ride home — by design, Baker said — followed by a team meeting the next day. After Baker spoke about standards the team must strive to uphold, he said Owens was the first player to speak up. 

She even challenged the coach: Baker said Owens told him to “make sure you hold the team to a certain standard.” Baker credited much of JMU’s success last spring to that meeting, Owens’ newfound vocality and her “championship mindset” of giving 100% to everything she puts her mind to, and he said Owens’ success on the course gives reason for her teammates to listen. 

“The freshmen, sophomores, they look up to her with her work ethic on the golf course,” Baker said. “They’re going to keep working and grinding because they know she holds a lot of records.” 

One of those freshmen is Tatum Walsh — she met Owens prior to arriving at JMU this fall through amateur golf tournaments. Owens is “very genuine” and is “always willing to help” both on and off the course, Walsh said. 

“Just watching her juggle golf and school,” Walsh said, “I’ve learned so much — just how to handle everything.”

Within amassing a larger leadership role than her, as she described, “temperamental” self as a freshman, Owens said the upperclassmen on the team still equally learn from the underclassmen. She said the mix of ages creates an “interesting balance” of characters. 

“I really like the young energy,” Owens said.  “I think it keeps me in the loop with things.”

Owens said while she doesn’t think she’s necessarily “taught” the underclassmen anything, she said she can draw from her freshman experiences to better prepare the current class for where she once slipped. One area of tutelage, Owens said, is with attitude — she said it’s an adjustment coming from high school where golf is more individualized to college where the sport becomes team-dependent. 

When Baker told Owens to “get [her] head out of [her] way” as a freshman, Owens recalled, she said she had to reevaluate herself and realize her negative attitude wasn’t helping anyone on the team. 

“I could get pretty emotional in the course if things weren't going my way,” Owens said. “I think that's somewhere that I've matured a lot. I can kind of have a bad shot and I could let it roll off a little bit.”

Walsh — who Owens described as a “bomber” that can hit the golf ball a “country mile” — was also Owens’ roommate at Lady Paladin and was among the first to congratulate her upon seeing JMU women’s golf’s Instagram post about it. Owens’ response, Walsh said, solidified to her how good of a teammate she is: “When I'm off and graduating, I'm going to be so happy when I see you all break the record,” Walsh recalled Owens saying.

“I think records are there to be broken,” Owens said. “I hope that people behind me come and give my record a run for its money because I want this team to keep getting better.”

Contact Grant Johnson at breezecopy@gmail.com. For more women’s golf coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports