Jim Owen came late to golf.
He wasn’t one of those kids who hang around the country club practicing putting and looking for a pick-up match. Growing up in Rome, Ga., Owen spent his time on basketball courts or in baseball parks or on football fields. “It was baseball, football and basketball – three sports – all year round,” he recalls. At Berry College, he was a starting guard on the basketball team.
He learned to play golf as an adult. He was working at Oglethorpe University, where he’d been hired on as assistant basketball coach. Some coaches and faculty members would go out in the afternoons to shoot a round of golf at one public course or another. Owen was hooked. Soon, he said, he was playing just about every day.
“We played all over Atlanta,” the 53-year-old said. “We played on public courses, local municipal courses. I taught myself how to play. In 10 years, I dropped my handicap from 30 to 5.”
The game suited him. “I love the precision of it,” he said. “I love the calculations, the fact you can be perfect, but it’s fleeting. You can be perfect for one hole, but the next hole, golf gets the best of you.
“It fits my personality just perfectly. I love the concept of ‘perfect.’ I love how you can aim at an exact spot, do the technique just right, and make it perfectly.”
In 1994, when Oglethorpe started a golf team, Owen became its coach. He added the job to his duties coaching basketball. The first thing he had to do was find players for his new team. He searched the dorms. “We took kids who were already here who already had golf clubs,” he said.
From that relatively humble start, a golf empire has grown. Oglethorpe’s teams have won national championships in NCAA Division III college golf in two of the past four years, including this year. They’ve won conference tournaments 10 times. Owen himself has been named Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference Coach of the Year 12 times.
Sitting in his Oglethorpe office crowded with mementos from tournament victories and championships, Owen says he’s proudest of the fact that his teams have made Division III’s Top 10 in the country for 13 straight years.
“In 15 years, we’ve really made an impact in the nation,” he said.
How’s he done it? By not thinking like a golfer, to hear him tell it.
Golf is a game of individuals. It pits a player against himself as well as against his challengers and the course. The greats of the game stand alone in victory. There is no “team” in golf.
That’s not how Owen sees it. He wants his teams to play as teams. Owen says he looks for players willing to sacrifice their own individual scores for the good of the group. It’s sort of like basketball, only with sand traps and seven irons.
“I brought this skill from the basketball court to the golf course,” he said. “I think because of my basketball background, I appreciate the team concept and I brought that to golf. I recruited as a team. I coach like a team. Our team rules are very team-oriented. I took guys who would consistently make the good decision for the good of the [team]. … It takes all five [players] to win, just like it takes all five in basketball.”
Now he spends much of his time prowling golf courses looking for the kinds of players he thinks will fit into his program: Team players.
And his own golf game? He doesn’t play anymore. “I just walked away from it 10 years ago,” he said.
He’s too busy to find time to actually play a round, he said. His daughter, Michaela, who’s 15, is a top competitor and he spends time taking her to tournaments. Between watching her compete and watching his son’s baseball games pitching for Oglethorpe and watching his college players win championships, Owen says he’s happy to remain on the sidelines.
“It was a lot of fun to play,” he said, “but it’s more fun to coach.”