Rocklin’s Own Walk-On Champion Shows Perseverance: Sam Harned Wins Collegiate Championship

It was a tough first few weeks of college for Sam Harned, a walk-on for men’s golf at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Sam Harned
Sam Harned

It was the start of the season for the Wolf Pack, the fall of 2015, and Sam Harned, a freshman, questioned himself and his game, saying, “I felt like I didn’t belong at first. I did get down on myself a little bit when I wasn’t playing well.”

He was persistent, emailing Jacob Wilner, the Wolf Pack’s head coach, to see about getting a try-out.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” said Harned. “It was practice, whether it was just hitting balls or going out and playing. It takes a lot of hours.”

He heard from Wilner.

“He told me it would be difficult,” Harned recalled. “He was like, ‘Go out there and show me that you can play. You have to compete.’ ”

Harned, a graduate of Rocklin High School in Placer County, realized pretty quickly that he needed to turn things around and bring his scores down if he had any chance at all to possibly make the team, based on his play in tryouts. He felt as if he did not play very well during the first few qualifying rounds.

“It was kind of nerve-wracking,” Harned said. “I didn’t know what to expect, so it was more of going out and seeing what I could do. I was the small kid out of the group. It was tough.”

Harned did not give up. He stayed with it, believing in himself, trusting his play, working hard, spending as much time as he could around the game, the driving range and golf course.

“I think he’s benefited by seeing other players on our team win,” Wilner pointed out. “Seeing that it can be done has motivated him, knowing that he can do it, and building that confidence. I think the fact that we have other guys on the team that can win tournaments, too, is going to keep him pushed where he’s not going to be complacent. He’s going have to keep working hard and do the right things to continue to not just stay where he is, but to get better.”

The work that Harned put into his game paid off. He was awarded a scholarship.

“The first year kind of taught me a lot,” said Harned. “I think making the team was the biggest thing, just showing that I could compete and I was able to play on a college team.”

He played in 10 events as a sophomore during the 2017-18 season, producing a scoring average of 74.13 and helping lead the Wolf Pack to the title at the El Macero Classic in Yolo County by tying for 14th place individually.

He played in 11 events as a junior during the 2018-19 season, recording a scoring average of 72.30, the 10th lowest in single-season program history, according to He had two top-5 and six top-15 finishes. Harned shot a 64 – tied for the third-lowest round in program history, according to – en route to finishing third at the Visit Stockton Pacific Invitational.

“To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think he had the playing background enough to warrant that spot. But again, he was persistent and he made some progress. He’s got a lot of inner toughness and he’s very driven,” said Wilner, who is in his 10th year at Nevada.

“He’s made a lot of progress over the last 2 ½ years. He did a great job during the walk-on tryouts. He started growing as a player. It’s a pretty Hollywoodesque-type story, to be quite honest with you.

“He went from walk-ons, where he played in events, and then we put him on scholarship. He had a great year last year; he was in contention to win events.”

Harned is off to a super start for Nevada as a senior, as he was the individual medalist at the Badger Invitational, the season-opening tournament, hosted by Wisconsin, in early September for the Wolf Pack. It’s the first collegiate title for Harned, who had rounds of 70, 70 and 64 for a 12-under-par 204 total at University Ridge Golf Course, a par-72, 7,294-yard layout, in Madison, Wis.

Harned’s 8-under-par final round – tying his career-low score – led Nevada to a fifth-place team finish.

“He was in the lead and he just had a different mindset,” said Wilner. “He was very confident and he kind of just had that mindset that he was going to go out and he was going to win. He wasn’t going to back-door it. He was going to go out and earn it. You know, to shoot 64 with one bogey, to get the win, was just awesome for him.”

Harned is the team captain for the Wolf Pack. His photo is displayed on the outside of Nevada’s student-athlete academic building. He is majoring in general business.

Sam Harned - Badger Invitational Champion - University of Nevada, Reno
Sam Harned – Badger Invitational Champion – University of Nevada, Reno

Harned said he played “simple golf” in Nevada’s 2019-20 season opener.

“I just kind of like kept it simple – hitting fairways and hitting greens, and not pushing myself. I think I could have gotten a little bit more out of what I did the first two rounds.

“If I had a birdie putt, I wasn’t trying to force it in. It was just like, let’s get the line and speed. It worked out pretty well.”

Harned was tied for sixth, two shots off the lead, going in the final round.

“It was pretty cool to just play and just let it happen. It’s kind of a fun feeling coming from the back. We were the first tee time off. It was just see what you can do and post a number and whatever happens from there, happens.”

He played in the No. 2 spot on the team last year. He has risen to No. 1 this year.

Harned came into the fall having played very well during the summer.

He qualified for the U.S. Amateur Championship, shooting rounds of 71 and 67 at Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton in July.

Sam Harned
Sam Harned

He had rounds of 75 and 72 at the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club in Pinehurst, N.C. in August, but did not advance to match play.

“I didn’t play a lot of tournaments, but I pushed hard this summer,” said Harned. “I didn’t have my best game playing in the U.S. Amateur, but I only missed the cut by two. So it did show me that even when I am not playing well, I can still play with the big guys. I think that gave me a lot of confidence.

“This summer, with all the work I put in and playing in the U.S. Amateur helped out a lot with how the season can go and it kind of showed in Wisconsin.”

Nevada, one of the top teams in the Mountain West Conference, will play in five more fall events, which includes the Alister MacKenzie Invitational, Oct. 7-8 at The Meadow Club in Fairfax (Marin County).

This is followed by seven events in the spring, which includes The Goodwin, March 26-28, 2020 at Stanford Golf Course.

Nevada won three tournament titles and advanced to the NCAA Regionals last year.

“I’m definitely looking forward to this year. I think we have a good team. It’s just seeing what the team can do. Hopefully, we can get a few team wins in,” said Harned, 22.

“I played well my first event, but I think it’s important to not put expectations on the rest of the year. It’s just thinking of one tournament at a time. It’s a lot of fun playing as a team. I’m super close to everyone, so you go out there playing for the team. I just want to play well for the team, post numbers and see what we can do, and hopefully make the nationals this year as a team.”

The Nevada team practices and plays at Montreux Golf & Country Club, Hidden Valley Country Club and Lakeridge in Reno, and Gray’s Crossing and Martis Camp in Truckee.

Sam Harned played on the Rocklin High School golf team all four years and was selected to the All-Sierra Foothill League first-team as a senior. He played out of Whitney Oaks Golf Club in Rocklin.

He’s a self-taught player, learning and picking things up and building his own swing over the years.

“The level of competition is really good in the area and was super important to my game. I think that’s kind of the reason why I try as hard as I do and why I think I can compete with some of the best,” said Harned, who won the Fairfield City Championship in 2017.

Today’s article is written by Marty James. Marty James is a freelance writer who makes his home in Napa. He retired on June 4, after spending 40 years as a sports writer, sports editor and executive sports editor for the Napa Valley Register, a daily newspaper in Napa County. He is a 1979 graduate of Sacramento State and a member of the California Golf Writers & Broadcasters Association. He was inducted into the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame in 2016 and the Vintage High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2019.

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