Heck's next challenge: the U.S. Women's Open
- Stanford Athletics photo
- Stanford Athletics photo

By all accounts, it’s been a pretty good year for Stanford freshman Rachel Heck.

With six wins to her credit over the last three months, the newly crowned NCAA individual champion rides a streak into the U.S. Women’s Open in San Francisco hot enough to burn away the heavy fog which is as synonymous to the Olympic Club as its undulating fairways, thick, wet rough, lightning fast tiny greens, unforgiving cypress trees, biting ocean breezes and of course, the club’s infamous burger dog.

A quick review of Heck’s impressive résumé starts with her first win at the Gunrock Invitational at Del Paso Country Club in Sacramento in early March. After tying for 11th at the Juli Inkster Invitational and earning a share of second place at the PING/ASU Invitational, things got really interesting. The Memphis, Tenn., native notched her second win of the year at the Fresno State Classic and then went on a Tiger-like roll through the postseason, winning individual titles at the Pac-12 Championships, the Stanford Regional and the NCAA Championships to become just the third collegiate player to win her conference, regional and national titles in the same season.

Related: Stanford's Rachel Heck sweeps postseason as NCAA match play set

- Stanford Athletics photo
Though Stanford suffered a quarterfinal loss to Arizona in the match play portion of the NCAA Championships, Heck won her match against Theresa Warner, 3&2. Prior to nationals, Heck earned a spot in the U.S. Women’s Open field by claiming medalist honors at the qualifier held at Marin Country Club in Novato, Calif.

In other words, Rachel Heck hasn’t lost anything in over three months.

The numbers are hard to ignore. Heck’s 69.72 scoring average set a new NCAA record, bettering the previous mark of 69.76 set by Alabama’s Lauren Stephenson in 2018. She posted 15 of 25 rounds in the 60s, including 12 straight, and her closing round 74 at the NCAA Championships was her first over-par round since mid-March.

The well-deserved accolades came in droves. Heck became just the third freshman to win the prestigious ANNIKA Award, given to the top women’s player in collegiate golf. She was also named the PING Women’s Golf Coaches’ Association Player of the Year and the WGCA’s Freshman of the Year presented by Strackaline.

Heck, who aspires to become the first woman to serve in the military reserves while playing on the LPGA Tour, is currently the second-ranked collegiate player in the country and the sixth-ranked player in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Rankings.

Of her six victories over the last three months, the one that didn’t draw as much attention is the one that might give the strongest indication that Heck will be firmly in the mix this week at Olympic. In early May, Stanford hosted three other local universities at The Olympic Club Collegiate. The one-day event, played in cold, windy conditions, featured the same hole locations as Sunday’s 2012 U.S. Open won by Webb Simpson and the course was set up longer than it will play week. With temperatures plummeting rapidly, Heck fired a 5-under 67 and missed two very makeable birdie putts. Oh, it was the first time she ever saw the course.

Heck’s run over the last three months begs the obvious question. Can she contend or even, gulp, win the U.S. Open?

“I don’t think it is out of the question that she could be in a good position on the weekend,” said Stanford head coach Anne Walker.

GOLF Channel’s Kay Cockerill thinks Heck has what it takes to hold her own among the world’s best players on golf’s biggest stage.

“She is on a tremendous momentum roll right now,” said Cockerill, who is also a longtime Olympic Club member. “It’s really a home game for her. She hits it long, high and straight off the tee and has the short game to handle Olympic’s undulating greens. I think she learned a lot about herself playing in the ANWA (Augusta National Women’s Amateur) on a course that has many of the same characteristics as Olympic. If her short game is on, there’s no reason not to think she can contend. She’s a complete player, regardless of her age and you can’t underestimate the influence Anne (Walker) has had on her.”

One intangible of Heck’s makeup that might be her biggest asset this week is her ability to completely focus on the here and now while being pleasantly and purposely detached from the grandeur of her surroundings.

“Rachel’s best attributes on the course match her best off the course,” said Walker. “She has a great perspective on what’s important in life and knows that with or without golf, she has a full heart. She very much has a positive, glass half-full outlook on life, both on and off and course. She stays committed to the process and maintains her patience no matter how her round is evolving.

“One thing is for sure, she’ll smile from her first tee shot to her last putt,” said Walker.

“I try never to worry about my score or the leaderboard or anything else I can’t control,” said Heck. “I just try to smile and enjoy the thrill of being in contention.”

Whether Heck or any of the other 25 amateurs in the field contend for this year’s U.S. Open title remains to be seen, but recent history suggests they will.

Amateurs have a history of contending for the U.S. Women's Open

It was just last year in Houston, Kaitlyn Papp, a senior at the University of Texas, was in the top-10 after each of the first three rounds before ultimately tying for ninth overall at 3-over 287. Gabriela Ruffels (t-13), who was the reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion and Arizona State sophomore Linn Grant (t-23rd), joined Papp and Maja Stark inside the top-25. Grant also contended in 2018 at Shoal Creek where the young Swede was just three shots off the lead heading into the weekend.

Related: U.S. Women's Open: Kaitlyn Papp earns low amateur honors

In 2017 at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, NJ, decorated Korean amateur Hye-Jin Choi finished just two strokes back of champion Sung-hyun Park. Canadian Brooke Henderson tied for 10th at the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open won by Michelle Wie at Pinehurst. In 2008, Maria Jose Uribe of Colombia tied for 10th at Interlachen while Amanda Blumenherst and Jane Park tied for 10th at Newport Country Club. Aree Song finished fifth in 2003 at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon and in 1999, Grace Park tied for eighth at Old Waverly, where Juli Inkster claimed her first of two U.S. Open championships.

While Catherine Lacoste of France has the distinction of being the only amateur ever to win the U.S. Open, capturing a two-stroke victory at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va. in 1967, amateurs have been involved in two of the most indelible moments in U.S. Women’s Open history.

It was in 2005 when Morgan Pressel, then 17-year old amateur, stood in the middle of the 18th fairway at Cherry Hills in suburban Denver tied for the lead, only to see Birdie Kim hole out an improbable shot from a greenside bunker just ahead of her to secure a one-stroke lead and ultimately, the U.S. Open title. Pressel finished tied for second with another amateur, Brittany Lang. Not to be forgotten, another amateur by the name of Michelle Wie was tied the 54-hole lead heading into the final round before dropping down the leaderboard on Sunday.

And who can forget Jenny Chuasiriporn, who had just completed her third year at Duke, cupping her mouth in disbelief after she rolled in a 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to force a playoff with Se Ri Pak at the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis. It took a long birdie putt by Pak on the 20th playoff hole the next day to win her first of five major championships in a hall of fame career.

Cockerill, who won back-to-back U.S. Women’s Amateur titles in 1986 and ’87, said the dividing line between high-caliber amateur players and touring pros is getting thinner each and every year.

“I don’t think the best young players today believe in the concept of paying their dues. They’ve played in very high-level junior and collegiate events and have tons of game. They ask ‘Why not now’ and I think that’s a great attitude to have.”

Don’t expect any bold predictions from Heck or a deep dive into her prospects of contending this week at Olympic. The only expectations she has are the ones she places on herself – and she’s not telling.

“No matter what happens, I can’t imagine walking away from the week thinking it was unsuccessful. It’s the U.S. Open!”

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