Stanford women’s golf competed for the NCAA Championship this week at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. After advancing through stroke play as the top seed, Stanford fell to Arizona in a brutally close quarterfinal match. Despite the team loss, freshman Rachel Heck put the finishing touches on one of the best individual seasons in NCAA history, winning the stroke play title with a score of eight-under-par.
Since 2015, the NCAA Championship has featured a combination of stroke play and match play formats. All 24 teams in the field play three days of stroke play, before the nine teams with the highest scores are cut. There is a fourth and final round of stroke play in which the individual champion is crowned. The eight best teams after this fourth round qualify for match play.
In the first round of stroke play at the NCAA Championship, the Cardinal not only faced off against the best teams in the country but also battled the elements. With winds gusting over 20 miles per hour, only four players in the tournament field broke par.
One of these players was Heck. The freshman wasted no time in her NCAA Championship debut. She made early birdies on the second, fourth, fifth and eighth holes to reach four-under-par. After her lone bogey of the day on the 10th hole, she made all pars to finish at three-under. Heck’s round of 69 was the lowest of the day.
Not far behind Heck was fellow freshman Sadie Englemann. Englemann played her first 10 holes in two-over-par, but made birdies on 13 and 15 to get back to even. She posted 72, which placed her in a tie for fifth overall.
Behind the freshman duo of Heck and Englemann, junior Aline Krauter and sophomore Brooke Seay both shot 75. At the end of day one, Stanford’s three-over-par team total placed them in third behind Texas and Oregon.
In the second round of stroke play, the Cardinal took over. All four of Stanford’s counting scores were under par, and the team ascended to the top of the leaderboard.
Once again, Heck led the charge. Starting on the back nine, she shot a bogey-free 32 to expand her lead. She then played her inward nine in one-under-par to finish with a 67. Heck’s 67 marked her 12th consecutive collegiate round in the 60s, a streak dating back to the Ping ASU Invitational in March.
Sophomore Angelina Ye made six birdies to go against just three bogeys in her second round 69. Krauter and Seay pitched in scores of 71, as the Cardinal surpassed Texas and Oregon.
Stanford followed up its solid second round performance with a record-setting third round. The Cardinal shot 11-under-par 277, the lowest round in school history at the NCAA Championship.
Ye posted the best score of her collegiate career in the third round. She opened the day with four pars before making birdies on the fifth and sixth holes. She then made eagle on the par five seventh. After a bogey on 10, Ye rattled off four more birdies to reach seven-under-par. She ended the day with a 65, which rocketed her up to second place on the individual leaderboard.
At the conclusion of the third round, Stanford’s lead had ballooned to 20 strokes over second place Duke. With a top-eight finish and a spot in match play all but guaranteed, the drama in the fourth round would come on the individual side.
Heck entered the final round at 10-under-par, five strokes ahead of Ye in second place. UCLA sophomore Emma Spitz was seven shots behind in a tie for third.
Heck, who had looked superhuman throughout the first three rounds of the tournament, got off to a slow start by her standards in the final round. She birdied the third hole, but quickly followed with bogeys on the fourth and seventh.
As Heck was struggling to maintain her lead, Spitz was on a tear. Teeing off early and on the back nine, Spitz made five birdies and just one bogey to shoot 68. She posted a seven-under-par total while Heck was still on the golf course.
As Heck started her back nine, her lead continued to shrink. She made bogeys on 10 and 12 to fall back to eight-under-par for the tournament. She was now just one stroke ahead of Spitz. To add pressure, Ye made birdies on 10 and 12 to also get within one of Heck.
What had once seemed like a clear path to a national championship was starting to look uncertain for Heck. At a minimum, she needed to play the last six holes in even par. This would be a tough task for anybody, let alone a freshman, in the pressure-packed national championship.
However, Heck is not your ordinary collegiate golfer. For the final time this season, she rose to the occasion and played smart, disciplined and mistake-free golf down the stretch. She hit fairways and greens and not once came close to making a bogey.
As Heck walked to the 18th tee box, she needed one more par to secure the NCAA individual title. She was still eight-under-par, one ahead of Spitz and two ahead of Ye. On perhaps the most important tee shot of her season, she hit a booming drive down the center of the fairway.
Consulting coach Anne Walker, Heck decided to lay up with her second shot on the par five. She took a pitching wedge and aimed for the left side of the fairway. Once again, she executed perfectly, leaving herself with 60 yards to the pin.
On her third shot, Heck played it safe, hitting a smooth wedge shot to the center of the green. She left herself with 20 feet to the hole and two putts to win the national championship.
At this point, the hard work was done for Heck. Grinning ear-to-ear, she enjoyed the walk up to the final green and bathed in the raucous applause from her teammates.
When Heck tapped in her par putt on the 18th hole, she made history. She became the first Stanford women’s golfer to ever win the NCAA individual title and the third in NCAA history to sweep the postseason. Her season scoring average of 69.72 also set a new NCAA record.
Even Heck couldn’t find the words to express such a fitting end to her magical season.
“I’m just so beyond blessed, I’m at a loss for words,” she told Golf Channel at her trophy ceremony. “I just got done and my heart is beating really fast, but wow I’m so grateful for all the opportunities that Stanford has given me and I’m grateful for the best teammates in the world.”
While Heck’s individual title and the team’s stroke play victory was cause for celebration, the tournament was not over yet. The following morning No. 1 Stanford took on No. 8 Arizona in match play with a trip to the semifinals on the line.
Seay was pitted against Arizona junior Ya Chun Chang. Seay won the first hole and did not fall behind for the rest of the round. She made the turn one ahead of Chang and won the 11th, 14th and 15th holes to give the Cardinal the first point of the day.
Krauter and Englemann faced off against Arizona’s Hou sisters. Krauter fell behind early against senior Yu-Sang Hou, losing the second hole. Krauter has had huge success in match play in the past, but could not find any momentum on this day. She eventually fell to Hou by a score of 5&3.
Englemann had a back and forth match with sophomore Vivian Hou. The two were tied after 13 holes, but Hou won the 14th and 16th holes to go two-up. Englemann made a final run on the 17th hole, but Hou cashed in a par putt to secure the match.
With Arizona up 2-1 overall, both Heck and Ye needed to win their matches to keep Stanford’s championship hopes alive. Following her stroke play title, Heck cruised to a 3&2 victory over Arizona sophomore Teresa Warner.
The team score was now tied at 2-2, and the final match between Ye and Arizona sophomore Gile Bite Starkute would determine which team advanced to the semifinals.
The Ye and Starkute match was one for the books. Starkute took a one hole lead heading into the back nine, but Ye quickly answered with a win on the 10th. Starkute made birdie on the 13th, but Ye squared the match with a birdie of her own on the 17th.
Heading into the 18th hole, the two were tied. Both players found the fairway with their drives, and Starkute played first.
Looking to reach the par five 18th hole in two shots, Starkute hit a wood from the fairway. To her dismay, the ball headed left and came to rest under a bush. Starkute had to take a drop and a penalty stroke, leaving the door open for Ye to close out the match.
Ye played the 18th hole conservatively and put her third shot on the putting surface. Starkute also found the green, but with her fourth shot.
Ye still had the advantage. However, she faced a difficult, uphill birdie putt. Her attempt raced past the hole, leaving her eight feet coming back for par. Starkute lagged her par putt close, all but securing her bogey.
Ye had one more chance to win the match and send Stanford to the semifinals. Unfortunately, Ye’s par putt was not to be; her ball slipped just past the hole on the right side. Ye and Starkute would then enter a sudden death playoff.
On the first playoff hole, Ye and Starkute both found the fairway and the green. Ye’s ball finished on the front edge, some 50 feet short to the hole. Starkute’s ball found the back fringe roughly 30 feet past the pin.
Ye lined up her lengthy birdie putt and played it beautifully. Her speed was perfect, and the ball finished within six inches of the cup. Starkute conceded Ye’s remaining putt for par.
As Ye prepared for the next playoff hole, Starkute faced a long birdie putt to win the match. She stroked the ball and watched intently as it rolled up the hill, broke left-to-right and fell in the center of the cup.
Arizona erupted. The team stormed the green, celebrating Starkute’s improbable putt and victory.
It was a heartbreaking finish for Stanford, who had looked so poised to compete for the national championship heading into the day.
Although Stanford came up short, the team’s season was one to remember. With a shortened schedule due to COVID-19, the Cardinal picked up four team wins and dominated both the NCAA Regional and stroke play at the NCAA Championship. Heck won six individual titles and shattered just about every freshman and program record. With no players in the starting lineup graduating, Stanford women’s golf will be a force to be reckoned with next season.