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Nebraska golfer Tanner Owen answers questions from the media at Firethorn Golf Club on Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Tanner Owen received a cut-down, wooden golf club from his grandpa when he was 2 years old. After Owen “smacked it around the front yard,” he developed a love for the sport that led him to Lincoln to play for Nebraska’s men’s golf team.

Owen is from Parkville, Missouri, but he has “always had a little bit of Husker red” in his blood. His grandparents live in Lincoln, and his mom grew up there as well.

Although the gift from his grandpa gave him a start in golf, Owen found a love for the sport on his own.

“I guess it just turned into a passion,” he said. “I was never forced into it. I was never forced to play in a tournament. I just started to love the game.”

In Missouri, Owen became a star on the golf course. At Park Hill South High School, he garnered all-state honors twice, first-team all-conference honors three times and was a first-team all district member all four years of high school.

In 2016, he also had the chance to play against hometown golf hero and professional golfer Tom Watson, who Owen said was one of his favorite golfers growing up, in the Watson Challenge. He tied for 17th in the challenge, 13 strokes behind Watson, who placed second.

Family ties drew Owen to Nebraska, but there were other factors as well. Jackson Wendling, a senior golfer from Nebraska, was one of Owen’s best friends growing up. On top of that, he also loved the atmosphere in Lincoln.

“You go from school to school, and Nebraska’s one that, they really stick out,” Owen said. “You walk in the stadium, and you see everything they do for student athletes day-in and day-out, so that was huge.”

While Owen arrived at Nebraska with plenty of high school success, he didn’t have the confidence he has now when he first became a Husker.

“The first couple of years, you kind of dabble. Sometimes, you’re starstruck by some of the players that are in the tournament that you’ve looked up to,” he said before the Git-R-Done Invitational. “I think a tournament like this, the mentality is ‘It’s mine to lose; they’re coming to me.’”

Even in those first years with the program, Owen made an impact as a freshman, as he competed in six of Nebraska’s 10 tournaments. Owen finished 39th in the Badger Invitational to open the year and tied for 28th in the Robert Kepler Intercollegiate.

In the 2017-18 season, Owen began to stand out amongst the Huskers. He was Nebraska’s top finisher at both the Maui Jim Intercollegiate and Hawkeye Invitational. In the Hawkeye Invitational, he had his top overall finish, coming in 14th. However, he had a slightly worse stroke average than the year before, going from 75.76 to 76.55.

Over the years, Owen said he has grown a lot as a golfer in a variety of ways. 

“Whenever I was younger, it was all about just bombing the golf ball, hitting a driver as far as you could, hitting a wedge, trying to make some putts,” Owen said. “I’ve really learned to let the golf course come to me instead of me trying to go toward it. Also just patience, which takes time as a golfer.”

This year, Owen has made a big leap. He currently has a team-low 72.76 stroke average, the best of his collegiate career and has had three top-25 finishes. He has also been awarded the Big Ten Golfer of the Week once this season.

Nebraska head coach Mark Hankins, who is in his first year at Nebraska, has played a part in the success of Owen and the rest of the Huskers. Everything from nutrition to the workout regimen has changed, but Owen said Hankins’ biggest strength has been consistency.

“I respect the guy, 100%,” Owen said. “He brought a lot of positive changes; everything’s very structured, and it’s also very consistent.”

The respect is mutual between Owen and his new coach, as Hankins was quick to throw high praise to the junior.

“Tanner Owen has been really good for us, [and] he just continues to get better,” Hankins said. “He had a top-20 [finish] last week against an amazing field out at Stanford. He’s been our leader pretty much the whole year.”

Owen did not shy away from the moniker, acknowledging that he does consider himself “a leader on the team.” However, he was quick to add that his teammates also play important roles for him.

“A lot of guys look up to me, but I also look up to a lot of guys on the team,” Owen said. “Our golf team is pretty small, so we’re always together. We eat together, we hang out together, we work out together. They come to me with certain things, and I think they trust me more than anything.”

That close bond between teammates has helped Nebraska continue to improve, and Owen is confident it will remain after their time with the Huskers.

“Just having a friendly bond, you know you don’t have to be friends with everybody — you’re not forced to be — but you can’t pick your teammates,” Owen said. “It just so happened that all of us are really good friends, and it’s gonna go way past college too.”

Over the years, Owen has improved as a golfer and made lasting friendships with his teammates, but the biggest lesson he has learned draws back to his roots.

“Being away from home, I definitely grew closer with the family,” Owen said. “I also got to spend more time with my grandparents who live here, so I’m just really learning the value of family time and learning the value that you always have a place back at home.”

sports@dailynebraskan.com