While the COVID-19 pandemic was still far-off, a talking point on TV in faraway countries, competitive golfers all over the state and country prepared to hit the courses and get ready for a spring season.
Fast forward to March.
The Masters: postponed.
The PGA Championship: postponed.
The U.S. Open: postponed.
The Open Championship: cancelled.
While golf fans waited anxiously for a sign of return to courses for the PGA Tour, college and high school seniors sat helplessly while their senior seasons were cancelled in front of them.
For some, this was the end of the line. Their senior season was the last hurrah of competitive golf for them before they headed on to life outside the ropes.
For others, this is a brief setback. They sit on the sidelines, keeping their games ready for when they can go on to college golf, or take another year of eligibility, or make the jump to the ranks of professional golf.
They have served as some of the best ambassadors to Nebraska golf the game has seen. They represent the game and their state with humility in victory and grace in defeat. Each one had a career on which they can look back and be proud. Here are a few of their stories.
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Alex Schaake, Iowa
Aside from being one of the winningest golfers in NGA history, Omaha's Alex Schaake has had a prolific career at Iowa as well.
Last year, he was named the Big Ten Men’s Player of the Year, after winning his first college tournament.
This year, he completed his tenth career top-10 finish at the Gopher Invitational. He also led Iowa in rounds at or below par with 11 and had the best 18-hole stroke average at 71.2.
In the spring, before the season was cancelled, he competed in all three tournaments that Iowa competed in. He finished 3-1-0 at the Big Ten Match Play. His 11th top-10 finish came at the Colleton River Collegiate, where he tied for seventh after totaling 213 (-3) over three rounds.
It was that consistently stellar play that led to a second-straight unanimous selection to the All-Big Ten first team. Adding to his first team selection last year, and his second team award in 2018, Schaake is one of just two players in Hawkeye history to earn three All-Big Ten honors.
His career in the black and yellow isn’t done though. Schaake has said he is ready to take an extra year of eligibility, offered by the NCAA to senior athletes who had their seasons cancelled, and play for the Hawkeyes for one more season before turning professional.
“I’ve weighed all my options, and you never know. This summer was kind of going to be me experiencing professional golf and I was going to turn pro right when the summer started,” Schaake said. “But now that everything is kind of up in the air (as to when) everything’s going to start back up, I decided to take my summer as an amateur again.”
This summer, Schaake plans to play more local tournaments. He mentioned he might be back in action at the Nebraska Match Play Championship, slated to start June 22nd at Hillcrest Country Club in Lincoln. After that, he could have a chance to defend his title at the 112th Nebraska Amateur Championship at Happy Hollow Club in Omaha. With a fifth straight win, he would move within one of Bob Astleford’s record six straight.
Noah Hofman, Ottawa University (AZ)
McCook's Noah Hofman finished out his spring season at Ottawa University in Arizona with impressive individual wins at the ACU Spring invitational and the TMU Spring Invite, carding final scores of 206 (-10) and 223 (+7), respectively. Throw in a T2 finish at the OUAZ Spring Invitational, and Hofman didn’t drop below the top two in any tournament he played in this spring.
Hofman said that while the spring season went well, the high point of their year came much earlier.
“I would honestly say we were getting to the highlight of our year,” Hofman said. “But I would say our first tournament of the fall in Iowa, coming back from 10 shots down and beating the defending national champions (in) Texas Wesleyan, because that was more our realization, thinking that we could do it at the end of the spring.”
Hofman was recently announced as a finalist for the 2020 Jack Nicklaus National Player of the Year Award (Read the release here). The winners will be announced during the PGA Tour's Memorial Tournament, July 13-19.
As for the future, Hofman won’t take another year of eligibility at Ottawa. In fact, he recently made his professional debut on the Outlaw Tour in Arizona. He’s made a few starts as an amateur on the mini-tour, but has made the jump to the pro ranks at the TPC Champions Classic, where he missed his first cut. Keep tabs on Hofman's progress on Twitter by following @HofmanNoah.
Tanner Owen, Nebraska
Tanner Owen came off a standout summer season that included being the qualifying medalist at the Nebraska Match Play Championship into what he thought would be his final year in the Husker uniform.
The fall season produced his highest individual career finish at the Prairie Club Invitational. Owen’s 217 (-2) total was good enough to give him a third-place finish. He led the Huskers in scoring this year with a 75.46 average.
Owen graduated this spring with his undergraduate degree, but isn’t done with the Big Red yet. He’ll suit up in the fall, choosing to take another year of eligibility while he starts grad school.
While he said it’s hard to just pick one favorite memory, getting to play with all of his teammates was a highlight of his career.
“There’s a million memories and a million stories I’ll take from the last four years,” Owen said.
Haley Thiele, Nebraska
Haley Thiele of Wahoo came into her final season of college golf fresh off a summer win at the Nebraska Women’s Amateur Championship at York Country Club.
Through her career, Thiele battled injuries and swing changes, redshirting her sophomore year because of one of those injuries. She was able to return to the lineup this year, even after continuing to fight off injury her junior year. She says she’s proud of the way she handled adversity throughout it all.
“My time at Nebraska definitely hasn’t been easy,” Thiele said. “The thing for me, I thought it was important to keep a positive attitude and still try and lead the team the best that I could, whether I was injured or not, even going back to my redshirt year, there was a lot of things I could contribute on the team without competing that year.”
This year, she finished her career out with a 77.80 stroke average over 15 rounds. That includes her best score this year at the Westbrook Spring Invitational, as she finished with a 223 total.
Thiele says she still plans on playing golf, and staying around the game as much as possible.
Mitch Klooz, Nebraska
Laurel's Mitch Klooz wrapped up his senior year for Nebraska this year, providing depth on the Husker roster. Last year, he finished 2-2 for the Huskers at the Big Ten Match Play Championship and secured a T12 finish at the Husker Invitational with a 150 (+8) total.
While he won’t take a fifth year of eligibility for the Huskers, he won’t be staying away from golf. He’s now working as an assistant professional at Champions Run in Omaha.
Klooz hails from Laurel and said that wearing the red N on his hat made his college golf career special. It was a long journey for Klooz, who graduated high school in 2014 and moved on to play initially at Liberty University in Virginia. He battled injuries there, including two redshirt years, but eventually had an opportunity to transfer back to Nebraska for the 2018-19 season.
“I don’t think it really set in that I was playing for the Huskers until we had our home meet out at Firethorn, and a couple alumni brought their kids,” Klooz said. “You could hear them saying ‘oh, he plays for the Huskers,’ and that right there, that was pretty cool, to be a kid from Nebraska, and to play for the Huskers. That’s a dream come true.”
Reed Malleck, York
Reed Malleck’s high school career jumpstarted with an eighth-place finish in the NSAA Class B Boys Championship his freshman year for York High School. He was on the York squad that won the team championship his sophomore year in 2018, and last year, he finished fourth in Class B as a junior.
Malleck continued to impress this past summer. He was one of a handful of juniors to make the bracket at the Nebraska Match Play Championship, made the quarterfinals at the Junior Match Play, and finished third at the Junior Amateur, which included a first round 67 (-5) that gave him the lead. He also was a leading point scorer at the Kansas-Nebraska Junior Cup, which included two dominating wins in Four-Ball and Foursomes matches, and a tie against Kansas’ top player in Singles.
Malleck will take his talents to Lincoln this fall and play for the Huskers. When he looks back on his high school career, he said playing for York was something special for him.
“Just playing for your hometown is something that’s just really cool. When you represent your high school, it’s just different for some reason. I don’t know why, there’s just a different level of pride,” Malleck said. “In the summer, yeah, you’re still playing for your name, but when you’re playing for your high school name and your town, that just puts so much more on it.”
Jake Kluver, Norfolk
Jake Kluver played his high school seasons for a dangerous Norfolk Panthers team. During his sophomore year, he recorded his first top ten finish at the NSAA Class A Boys Championship. He finished eighth in the individual race, on a team that won the state championship.
Last year, the Panthers were a team that won seven out of 10 tournaments, including a district title. Kluver finished T14 individually in Class A, and his team took third.
Kluver also had a solid summer season, culminating at the Kansas-Nebraska Junior Cup. He was part of a big Foursomes match that won on the 18th hole, and drained a clutch birdie putt on the 17th that let him and Connor Vandewege of Lincoln wrap up the match on the final hole. He also was the final match on the course in singles matches, and his up-and-down for par on the 18th hole sealed Nebraska’s retention of the cup.
He’s not done with competitive golf, though. Jake will head to Omaha this fall to play for head coach Judd Cornell and the Creighton Bluejays. Kluver joins a Creighton roster full of homegrown talent, including Cade McCallum of Grand Island, Tucker Knaak of Plainview, and Nate Vontz of Lincoln.
He said some of his favorite memories of high school golf are van rides with his team to tournaments.
“Early in the morning, coach (Jerry) Cover would take our phones, we’d talk right away in the van, early in the morning, he’d set a goal score,” Kluver said. “We wouldn’t get (the phones) the whole ride there, and we had to win the tournament, or beat that goal score he had set for us to get our phones on the way home.”
Charlie Zielinski, Omaha (Skutt Catholic)
Charlie Zielinski's high school career took off in his sophomore season for Omaha Skutt Catholic, when he tied for third at the NSAA Class B Championship. In 2019, he bested that by finishing second in Class B, and was neck-and-neck with Luke Gutschewski of Mount Michael Benedictine, the eventual champion, throughout most of that round.
Last summer, Zielinski played his way onto team Nebraska for the Kansas-Nebraska Junior Cup with an impressive performance at the Nebraska Junior Amateur Championship. His final round of 69 (-3) was more than enough for captain Craig Badura of Aurora to pick him for the team.
Zielinski turned that into 1.5 points for Nebraska. His 5-and-4 win in singles matches was critical in sealing Nebraska’s cup retention bid.
“Without a doubt, the Junior Cup was the highlight of my summer last year,” Zielinski said. “The Junior Am was special because it was the tournament that got me into the Junior Cup because I did really good in that, but just the experiences I had playing in that event, it couldn’t be matched by anything else.”
Zielinski will join his Junior Cup teammate, Jake Kluver, this fall on the Creighton men's golf roster.
While this spring without competitive golf drags on, these seniors and many more will spend graduations at home, rather than being able to walk across the stage with their classes. Some are now hanging up the spikes, ready for a life off the competitive stage. They all can look back on their careers having accomplished something special on Nebraska’s greens, and that will stay with them forever.
These are just a few of the many stories of seasons that never were. Several others had their collegiate and high school careers come to an abrupt end, and we’d love to hear those stories as well. Tell us about your favorite memories on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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