The hardest tournament to win is the one you are supposed to, or at least the one where all eyes and all expectations are on you. But someone forgot to impart that conventional wisdom upon Stanford’s Rachel Heck, who in 2021 became just the third player in NCAA history to sweep the postseason, winning the Pac-12 conference title, an NCAA regional and then the NCAA individual championship. Those three wins represented half of Heck’s victories in her freshman year. All told she won six times in nine starts for the Cardinal. She also finished third in the U.S. Women’s Amateur, third in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, made the cut and finished 30th in the U.S. Women’s Open and was runner up in the Ping/ASU Intercollegiate.
Throw in the fact that Heck is in the ROTC program at Stanford and hopes someday to be the first active-duty Air Force Reservist to play on the LPGA Tour, and it’s no wonder that she is the Women’s Amateur of the Year for Global Golf Post.
“I can’t say that anything (in 2021) went as I expected it to go,” Heck said in recapping her year. “I thought I would have a normal freshman year of college, play some golf and have some fun with my team. I had no idea that those things would be completely different from what I anticipated.
“School was crazy. I didn’t get to go to campus in the fall (because of COVID-19). I finally got to go in the spring, and it was super empty. It was hard to get a feel for it. Truly, I was just grateful to get to play golf. I was so excited about getting to play with such a special group of girls and to finally be here. And I was grateful for what happened on the course.”
The pressures and adjustments of school are never easy. Throw in the fact that the school is Stanford in the strangest year in living memory and it is amazing that Heck was able to focus.
“I think it helped that I really loved everything that I was doing,” she said. “When everything is a burden, it’s really hard to get through it. I couldn’t wait to get to Stanford. I committed my freshman year of high school. For (arriving at school) to finally happen, later than I expected, was a thrill.
“I was super excited about getting to school, super excited about getting to the course, getting to ROTC in person. Everything finally came together. There were stressful moments. But to be excited about every new thing you’re doing is really cool.”
With that approach, Heck roared through the golf year.
“ ... My mental game was the best it’s ever been. I really was able to take it one round at a time because I was truly enjoying myself and grateful about where I was. I was excited to be teeing it up and wearing the Stanford uniform.”
“At the end of it, when the (winning collegiate) stretch was over and I got to go home for a little bit, you kind of look back and say, ‘What just happened?’ ” she said. “But at the time, you’re taking it one round, one shot and one tournament at a time.
“Looking back, golf is not a sport where you win that much. It’s not like soccer or basketball where you have a 50/50 chance every time. Wins don’t come often in golf. I was trying to be really excited and grateful for each one as it came. But to look back on the whole, it’s kind of crazy. I don’t know if anything like that will ever happen again, so I want to remember it as a really cool time in my life.”
Heck’s coach, Anne Walker, added perspective to her star player’s achievements.
“We all are aware of the talent that Rachel Heck has,” Walker said. “We’ve seen it since she was 13. But that talent doesn’t always equate to low scores. For her to continue to win week after week after week and to do so unflappably, that part surprised me.
“With winning (the Pac-12) conference and (NCAA) regional, both at home where she’s played the course a ton and is expected to do well, and then to carry that to the (NCAA) championship (in Arizona), her first exposure to the national championship, for her to waltz in there and lead wire to wire, that was a pleasant surprise.”
Heck’s six wins for Stanford set a school record for a single season. Her scoring average of 69.72 in her 25 rounds set a record in NCAA play.
“Obviously, my game was where I wanted it to be,” Heck said. “But more importantly, my mental game was the best it’s ever been. I really was able to take it one round at a time because I was truly enjoying myself and grateful about where I was. I was excited to be teeing it up and wearing the Stanford uniform.
“Coach Walker has been such a blessing to me,” Heck said. “Before the last round (of the NCAA Championship) I talked to her and said, ‘Coach, I’m really nervous right now.’ She told me what Tiger (Woods) told the team once. He said, ‘It’s a privilege to be nervous. There are so many people sitting at home right now watching, wishing that they had the opportunity to be nervous in the final group, fighting to win a national championship.’ That helped.”
Tiger quotes aside, what Heck did is still remarkable.
“Even at the professional level, it’s difficult when you’re on a streak to go into majors and play well,” Walker said. “I consider nationals to be an amateur major. For her to play the way she did says a lot.
“Anyone who plays at a high level dips their toe in and out of the one-shot-at-a-time waters. They have moments of clarity where it’s easy. The mind is so quiet. It just works. Other times, for whatever reason, it’s wavy and loud and the mind won’t do what you want it to do.
“I don’t think anyone – not Rory (McIlroy), not Tiger, not anyone – can have a whole career where that quiet mind is compliant. It just happens that when Rachel was in that six-week stretch she was in a place where her mind was compliant.”