The sensation was a familiar one for Kate Owens.
It happened last summer, when she was playing in the Junior PGA Championship, the biggest event of her golfing life. Owens stepped up to the tee, and leaning against the fence, watching her, were coaches from some of the biggest college golf programs in the country. The Lambert senior was already committed to play at James Madison, but that didn’t matter: Owens got nervous, her shoulders tightened up, and she yanked her drive to the left.
And while high school golf had always been a pressure-light environment for Owens, who was often the youngest player in the Longhorns’ group during her first three years, something changed this season. At the Area 3-7A championships on May 1, the tightness was back.
“That was kind of a new pressure, a new feeling,” Owens said. “Being like, ‘Oh, this is my last region (tournament), this is all I’ve got, this is what I’ve got to do. I have to play well.’”
Owens found a fix quickly, though, and she shot a team-best 77 that day to lead the Longhorns to the area title, which they won by six shots over second-place South Forsyth. Heading into the state championships on Monday and Tuesday, when the Lambert girls will play at Spring Hill Country Club in Tifton and the boys will play at Sunset Country Club in Moultrie, both teams have a strong chance at winning state titles, and both teams are doing it with an intriguing mix of youth and experience.
Owens is the Longhorns girls’ only senior in the postseason squad after being the only non-senior in 2017, but on Lambert’s boys squad, freshman Myles Jones has often been coming out ahead. At the boys area tournament, Jones shot a 68, five strokes ahead of any of his teammates, three strokes better than any other golfer in the loaded area, and two strokes ahead of any other individual score in the Class 7A area tourneys.
Jones is relatively new to golf in general – he started practicing when he was 11 and played his first tournament at 12. He has a tall, lanky frame, which helps him produce the leverage for long drives, but his coaches have been particularly impressed by his approach closer to the green.
“I don’t think we’ve seen him – knock on wood – chunk a chip,” Longhorns head coach Brooks Youngblood said. “His short game is just impeccable.”
Lambert wouldn’t be in its current position without a strong senior presence. While the Longhorns lost Grant Sutliff, who had their lowest individual score at last year’s state championship before skipping his senior year to enroll early at Kennesaw State, Hilton Francine and Mitchell Taylor have provided leadership in behavior and scoring during their final year with the program. Francine was second on the team with a 73 at the area championship, and Taylor was third, with a 75.
But Jones’ potential gives the Longhorns a shot at knocking off Mill Creek, which beat Lambert by four strokes in last year’s state championship and had a team score four strokes lower than the Longhorns’ in its area tournament.
“He’s a freshman, so he can definitely improve on a few things, but I’m impressed with his game,” Taylor said of Jones. “He makes some pretty good decisions on the course as well. Look at him – I don’t think he’s a freshman. He walks along with a lot of confidence on the course.”
The girls team, meanwhile, skews much younger. The Longhorns’ four in the area tournament were Owens, a senior; Morgan Boutwell, a junior; Rachel Burrell, a sophomore; and Sharon Mun, a freshman. Elise He, the team’s fifth player, is also a freshman.
“Kate has been a tremendous leader for our team,” girls head coach Chris Roy said. “She’s had an unenviable burden of being the senior on a young team and (is) really trying to show the younger players how it’s done, but not necessarily be bossy about it or anything.”
Owens has embraced the role, partly because of how it reminds her of her past. She looked up to and leaned on older golfers like Lauren Lightfritz and Kayley Marschke as an underclassman, and Owens can use her memories from those years to guide how she acts now.
“I see a lot of me in them, if that makes sense,” Owens said of the current underclassmen.
Owens now has two rounds left in her high school career, where she’ll try to lead the Longhorns to the program’s sixth straight state title. She now knows the pressure and anxiety that her situation can cause, but she also has figured out how to lessen it.
“It loosens the tension in your shoulders,” Owens said. “…So if I’m just randomly yawning, I’m not tired.”