'So damn proud': Stanford, Rachel Heck script another NCAA title run

'So damn proud': Stanford, Rachel Heck script another NCAA title run

It takes patience to play golf. You lose some, you win some, you can’t expect to win them all.

But if you practice a lot, and you don’t try to argue, try to get angry – you just have to make mistakes sometimes. It takes mistakes to learn.

– Kelly Xu, 9, after winning her age division at 2014 Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals

CARLSBAD, Calif. – Whether Kelly Xu likes it or not, her 9-year-old self has inspired her Stanford teammates. It was at the 2014 Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National, where a young Xu, full of gumption, was interviewed and asked to share her best advice for playing this crazy game.

Stanford head coach Anne Walker has borrowed the message from that adorable girl, now a college sophomore, the last couple months, ever since the video resurfaced around this year’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur, where Xu competed alongside four other Cardinal starters.

“That video makes me tear up because, first of all, she’s so darn cute,” Walker said. “I don’t know that Kelly loves it, but we’ve all been referencing that as a team a lot recently, and I’ve asked all of them, ‘What would your 10-year-old selves think about you today?’ They’d be so damn proud.”

Now more than ever.

Stanford won its third NCAA Championship in the match-play era – and its second in three years – with a 3-2 win over UCLA on Wednesday at Omni La Costa Resort and Spa. And it was the most patient player on the team, senior Rachel Heck, who earned the clinching point.

As Heck cozied a long birdie putt up near the hole on the 15th green, Walker finally allowed herself to celebrate as she hustled back to Heck from the 16th hole, throwing both hands in the air.

Moments later, Heck got another winning moment.

"That’s Rachel Heck for you," Walker said. "She deserves that, but also, it’s like it was scripted to be that way."

2024 NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championship
2024 NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championship

Walker has played a big role in writing it. As she has constructed Stanford into the modern-day standard, Walker credits her mantra, “Person first.” She’s fortunate, she says, that Stanford attracts the type of athlete that doesn’t settle.

“They’re driven kids,” Walker said. “They have obviously very strong, built-in work ethics, determination, ambition because that's how they, first of all, got in the door at Stanford, and then that doesn't go away, that maintains.”

Stanford’s world-class facility, the Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex, is the perfect environment to foster that excellence, too. Every tool imaginable is at the Cardinal’s disposal, including player advisers such as Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State and an Augusta National member.

Well, almost every tool.

There are no cookie cutters, as Walker’s squads traditionally “march to the beat of our own drum,” especially as it pertains to their competition schedule, which is West Coast heavy and usually omits top East Coast events such as the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate and Moon Golf Invitational.

“We do things different than a lot of programs, and we don’t fall victim to what’s the popular thing to do,” Walker added. “You look at some of the tournaments across the country and people feel like if you're not there, then you're not one of the best teams, and we just don't do it that way. We very much stay focused on like, ok, what does Stanford golf need? What does this particular group need at any given moment? What tournaments fit academic schedules? We just try to piece that together and do our thing, buy into it, and believe that if we do our thing, this will have us playing great golf when it matters.

“When does it matter? It matters now.”

Peaking in late May is a philosophy that Walker has used this season with her star player, Heck.

Heck won five times in her first semester at Stanford, including sweeping Pac-12, regional and national individual titles in 2021. She won seven times in her first 12 starts. But illnesses and injuries limited Heck to just 13 college starts since March 2022. She missed the Pac-12 Championship as a sophomore, though returned to help the Cardinal to the 2022 NCAA team title at Grayhawk. She’d play three times that next fall before being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, which required surgery as doctors removed one of her ribs. She tried to play the first round at last year’s NCAA Championship but was subbed out after an opening 82.

Walker said Heck has battled so many ailments in recent years that a few nights ago at dinner, Heck and her teammates were joking that she couldn’t remember all of them.

That’s not the case, however, with her troublesome left shoulder, which has limited Heck to just four college tournaments this spring. After logging two starts in the fall, plus an appearance in the Pan Am Games, Heck’s shoulder flared back up in January, and she doubted whether she'd ever hit another shot as a Cardinal. She sat out until late March, when she played Arizona State’s event and then the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. She missed the cut by a shot at Champions Retreat, but she left that week encouraged that she could finish off her college career on her terms.

As Heck told Walker, “If I rest and don’t touch a club until Pac-12s, I’ll be able to play.”

Heck tied for seventh at conference, won the NCAA Cle Elum Regional – despite being in so much pain that she briefly thought about withdrawing after two rounds – for her ninth career win, and then notched a top-30 in the stroke-play portion at La Costa. All while practicing sparingly in between.

“She’s an unreal talent,” Walker said. “If she was practicing, it’d be scary. It would be like freshman year again where no one could catch her.”

This version of Heck, though, is competing with more clarity than she’s ever had. Before heading to ANWA, Heck announced that she wouldn’t chase professional golf after graduation, instead remaining amateur and pursuing careers in private equity (she starts her first job this fall) and the U.S. Air Force.

Two holes into her quarterfinal match against Auburn’s Anna Foster on Tuesday, Heck hit her first drive out of bounds, split the fairway with her second drive and then from 240 yards out holed her fourth shot for a birdie to win a second straight hole. She capped her 2-1 week with a convincing 4-and-3 victory over UCLA’s Kate Villegas in the anchor match.

"It just felt like some type of higher power [was with me]," Heck said. "I’ve been praying so much these past two weeks – these past two years really – just praying that I could find peace...

“I played so freely just knowing that I’m so beyond happy with where my life is at."

Heck wasn’t the only standout for the top-ranked Cardinal, who won five times this season. It’s been a collective effort, a year removed from the Rose Zhang era, which ended in last year’s semifinals at Grayhawk, where Zhang played her first nine holes in 5 over and lost the deciding match to USC’s Brianna Navarrosa.

All five Stanford starters rank in the top 50 of the national rankings, and each of them had their moments at La Costa.

The team's other senior, Sadie Englemann, who like Heck was on the 2022 NCAA title squad, fell to UCLA’s likely first-team All-American, Zoe Campos, in the penultimate match, but Englemann won her first two matches, including a 19-hole win over Auburn freshman sensation Anna Davis.

Sampedro, a freshman from Spain, didn’t earn a full point in match play, but her solo-third finish in stroke play marked her ninth finish of seventh or better this season.

Ganne, who earlier this season wowed U.S. National Team coach Chris Zambri during a testing session with her elite iron play, went 3-0 in match play, as did Xu, whom Walker calls the hardest worker on the team and who finished runner-up at both Pac-12s and regionals.

2024 NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championship
2024 NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championship

Loaded with stars, it was no surprise that Stanford entered the day as overwhelming favorites against the sixth-ranked Bruins, who were in their first season under head coach Alicia Um Holmes.

Holmes and Walker played college golf against each other, Holmes at UCLA and Walker at Cal. “We were paired a lot, maybe because we were always fourth or fifth in the lineup,” Holmes joked. Holmes credited Walker, among other Pac-12 peers (Oregon’s Derek Radley and USC’s Justin Silverstein also led their respective programs to the semifinals this week), for offering her advice through the years.

“My path has been much slower than theirs, though,” said Holmes, who after two decades under former UCLA head coach Carrie Forsyth, including 17 as an assistant, was hired last summer following Forsyth’s retirement.

Holmes spent all last summer reconstructing a roster in shambles. With just two true returners, she added three transfers. More impressively, she got them to gel quickly, pointing first to a three-day retreat the first week of last September that included bonding exercises, team meetings, goal setting, even a Jonas Brothers concert.

The Bruins’ motto all year has been, “Don’t work hard, play hard.” That translated into four team wins, a four-win season individually for Campos and a date with Stanford in the national final.

“We have no expectations,” Holmes said a few hours before the championship match. “No one expects us to win.”

No one can say UCLA didn’t play hard.

But on this day, Stanford was just too much.

Earlier that morning in La Costa’s lobby, Walker got emotional, her eyes welling, as she reflected on this Cardinal group.

“I know it’s going to be over soon,” Walker said. “It makes me cry.”

Later that afternoon, the tears flowed as the Cardinal embraced on the 15th green. Walker held Heck a little tighter than most. Then Englemann jumped in.

"Now that's going out with a bang!" Englemann said.

Heck replied, "Our senior years, we did it!"

What would their 10-year-old selves think now?

"Maybe not even think it was possible," Walker said. "For those seniors to have two national championships in this format, it’s so hard to win. Also, the way they’ve done it, if you think of it, 10-year-old girls they have like the best of friends in life, and life gets messier the older you get. This is group is just as goofy and as close and as fun as any fourth-graders I’ve ever seen."

In golf, you win some, and you lose some.

And sometimes, the special ones win championships.