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Perhaps the best way to sum up the historic year Rachel Heck had is to listen as she discusses what went through her mind standing on the 18th green holding up the NCAA championship trophy in Scottsdale, Arizona, in May.
This had been one of her goals for so long, and an unlikely one even after years of being hailed as maybe the best women’s golf prospect to ever emerge from the Memphis area. Here she was representing Stanford, the dream school she committed to as a freshman at St. Agnes, a dream that had to be deferred even longer because COVID-19 shut down the campus in the fall of 2020.
She wondered if this would even be possible, and it had nothing to do with her driver or her putter or the rest of the prodigious skills she so carefully cultivated, starting out at Chickasaw Country Club, then Windyke Country Club and, more recently, Spring Creek Golf Course and TPC Southwind.
So this moment, a moment that further cemented her as one of the world’s best amateur golfers, became a moment of clarity as well.
Stanford University golfer Rachel Heck celebrates with her father Robert Heck after being crowned individual medalist during the NCAA Women’s Golf Championship at Grayhawk Golf Club. Joe Camporeale / USA TODAY Sports.
“I think my mindset kind of changed after COVID,” Heck said. “There was a long period where I wasn’t able to play and I missed it so much. I didn’t know when I was going to be able to play again. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to go to Stanford. So I was just happy to be playing golf.”
Heck embodied what it meant to persevere and thrive as an athlete through a pandemic that continues to wreak havoc on sports, and became one of the symbols for the new name, image, likeness era that has completely changed the notion of what a college athlete can do.
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Put simply: There was no Memphis-based sports figure who accomplished more over the past 12 months.
Heck, 20, became just the third freshman to sweep the NCAA golf postseason, winning her conference championship, her NCAA regional title, and the national championship. She was only the second freshman to win the ANNIKA Award, given annually to the best women’s Division I golfer. Her scoring average over 25 rounds of college golf (69.76) is also the lowest in NCAA history.
Heck also made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur and made the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open for the second time in four years. She finished the year at No. 3 in the women’s World Amateur Golf Rankings and No. 2 in the Golfweek/Amateur.Golf.com rankings.
“All the golf accomplishments just added on to what was already an insanely special year,” Heck said. “In my day-to-day life, I don’t find happiness from knowing that I won the national championship. I find happiness from my friends and everyone at Stanford and my coach. They’re what really matters.”
Stanford University golfer Rachel Heck tees off on the 11th hole during the NCAA Women’s Golf Championship at Grayhawk Golf Club. Joe Camporeale / USA TODAY Sports.
This perspective is a boon in light of all the other opportunities afforded Heck because of her achievements.
She is an example of how a college athlete’s ability to make money off name, image, and likeness can’t simply be viewed through the prism of professionalizing college sports. It’s not just about football and men’s basketball, either. It’s also a tool to keep athletes in school.
Heck is now represented by Excel Sports Management, the same New York-based agency that works with Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas, among others. She has only signed one marketing deal at the moment with Six Star Pro Nutrition, she said, although there have been numerous other offers to sort through.
“I just wanted to do this process right, not make any rash decisions, not sign any contracts the day after NIL was finalized by the NCAA,” Heck explained.
More importantly, though, it helps offset the pressure to turn pro that a golfer of her acclaim might have previously felt.
“For me, I don’t want to go pro anyways,” Heck said. “But I think the incentive was to monetize how you’re playing. If you’re playing well, some people look at it as a waste to stay in college when you could be making money off of that now.”
“To know that you can make money while playing in college gives you the best of both worlds. I really do think it’s going to keep a lot of people in college, which is so important. If you get your degree, the Tour will always be there.”