The Nebraska men’s golf team, like other spring sports teams, was forced to cut its season short due to COVID-19. And, like everyone else, it faced uncertainty about when and in what capacity it would return.
Now, with the green light to play, head coach Mark Hankins enters his third season with the Huskers. In Nebraska’s last full season in 2019, Hankins’ management brought the Huskers to a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten Championships. With the coronavirus cutting the 2020 season off a little more than a month into the campaign, Hankins had little time to be with his team because of safety protocols. Therefore, it was up to the players to make sure that they were ready at any time to play.
Golf has a unique advantage other sports don’t. In some ways, social distancing is built into the game. Given this, despite the fact the players couldn’t train at quite the level they could pre-pandemic, a key safety factor was sorted beforehand.
Of course, there were still other protocols that the athletes had to agree upon. This ultimately limited the time that the athletes could be together as a team, but this didn’t mean golf team members did nothing during the hiatus.
“Last fall we couldn’t have a season, so it was really up to them to be accountable,” Hankins said. “Many were able to get in two or three tournaments that they could play in, which made it easier for me to run practice semi-normal because we couldn’t travel ourselves.”
The Huskers had obstacles to overcome to make sure they would be ready for a season. But, with golf being such a friendly sport to the regulations that have been put in place by the NCAA, the Huskers are able to play in the tournaments and courses that they have been thinking about since the shutdown all those months ago. The goals of the team haven’t changed either, according to Hankins.
“Our goal to call it a successful season would be to be at the NCAA Regionals and make it as far as we can,” he said. “Like, we know tournaments can be postponed or cancelled and players can be quarantined for two weeks because of testing but that does not change what we want to achieve.”
Getting to the NCAA Regionals is going to take a significant team effort, but there are three golfers especially that will try and lead the Huskers to their goal. Senior Branden Meyer, junior Mark Foelbaek and freshman Jack Lundin were all named Big Ten Men’s Golfers to Watch entering this season, and the trio will look to lead Nebraska in 2021.
“Of course I am proud to hear that,” Foelbaek said. “But I try to stay humble with those types of things because I still need to prove that it was given to me for a reason.”
It will take more than just those three, of course. Hankins said that freshman Gentry Scheve, junior Caleb Badura and senior Tom Westenberger are all set to have breakout seasons and, ultimately, contribute significantly towards the team’s end goal.
With the objective set, and the team believing in itself, their schedule poses an interesting burden. Tournaments in Florida, Texas and California means a tiresome flurry of coast-to-coast voyages. Hankins and Foelbaek both said that the approach will be the same every week — to play the game of golf.
“When I first got on this team Coach Hankins said to us that we will travel to a lot of places, but we are not there to sightsee, we are there to play golf,” Foelbaek said. “And that is the approach that we will have for this season, especially with me. I enjoy the traveling but I imagine that we are just playing golf in Nebraska.”
To that end, Hankins said he has no specific tournament he is more or less interested in. He’s excited to see his team play golf, and play in the next fixture on the schedule.
The Huskers first event of the season is the Big Red Alumni Invite that is on Saturday, Jan. 30 in Jacksonville, Florida. But Hankins said the more pressing test is the Big Ten Match Play in Palm Coast, Florida on Feb. 5.
“We finished fourth the past times that we have played in, and have made it to the semi-finals,” Hankins said. “So there is a lot of excitement around that tournament coming up.”
More than anything, the Huskers are looking forward to competing again and continuing to improve.
“You can’t play football for eight to 10 hours a day, but our athletes do that and have been putting their whole lives into playing golf,” Hankins said. “They play it not because they have to, but because they love the game. That is what makes this team so special.”