‘Everyone’s so good. It’s almost a problem’: Women’s golf sets sights on NCAA Championship

March 29, 2022, 10:37 p.m.

A week of intra-team competition began on Tuesday for the top-ranked Stanford women’s golf team. At 1 p.m., team members headed to the Stanford Golf Course to compete in their first qualifying round. Their scores in this competition will determine who earns a coveted spot in the starting lineup for next week’s tournament, the Silverado Showdown.

It’s not immediately obvious, but this intra-squad competition, a glorified practice round closed to spectators, is the pinnacle of women’s collegiate golf right now. Ten golfers with stacked resumes — including six of the top-100 amateurs in the world — on the No. 1–ranked team are battling it out for just four spots, and some very talented golfers will inevitably be cut.

“There’s honestly no telling who’s even going to be in the lineup,” reigning Annika Award–winner sophomore Rachel Heck said. “Everyone’s so good. It’s almost a problem.”

All-American senior Aline Krauter shared Heck’s sentiment. “You can definitely end up on the wrong side of the cut line even though you’re playing well,” Krauter said.

The qualifying system is cutthroat, but head coach Anne Walker has decided it’s the fairest way to choose from the pool of talent.

Walker’s system evidently works. Over the past two seasons, the Stanford women’s golf team has gone on an unprecedented run. Dating back to the Olympic Club Collegiate in May 2021, the Cardinal have won seven tournament titles, including the NCAA Regional Championship, the Stanford Intercollegiate and the Pac-12 Preview. During this stretch, Stanford has posted a staggering 139-5-1 head-to-head record and has consistently been ranked the top team in the country.

While it’s true that Walker has a huge amount of talent at her disposal, the coach believes that the team’s culture sets it apart.

“Every kid on our roster has come to this team being the star of whatever city they live in, their state — for some of them — their country,” Walker said. “It requires all these kids checking their ego at the door. … That’s the secret to this group being special — that [the players] really are rooting for the entire program versus just for each individual.”

Rachel and Rose

Stanford women’s golf is anchored by two superstars: No. 1–ranked amateur in the world freshman Rose Zhang and No. 3–ranked sophomore Heck. The two have won 11 individual titles between them since coming to Stanford.

The pair first met years before they joined forces for the Cardinal, when they were grouped together in an American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) tournament. As a middle schooler at the time, Zhang was one of the youngest players in the field.

“She was like so quiet, and I was trying to get her to talk,” Heck remembered of their first meeting. “It was so cute. I was like, ‘This girl is adorable!’”

Although they spent high school across the country from each other (Heck is a Memphis, Tenn. native, while Zhang is from Irvine, Calif.), they were able to maintain a friendship competing on the national junior golf circuit.

“Both of us play a lot of events together, and we naturally just became really good friends,” Zhang said.

Before they reached The Farm, both golfers established themselves as top amateurs in the game. In high school, Heck was a four-time AJGA All-American, the 2017 Rolex Junior Player of the Year and a top-50 finisher at two LPGA major championships. Zhang won two USGA titles — the 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur and 2021 U.S. Girls’ Junior Amateur — and was a two-time Rolex Junior Player of the Year.

Heck’s success didn’t stop after high school. In fact, as a freshman, she had perhaps the best individual season in NCAA women’s golf history. During her freshman campaign, Heck won six times, including a clean sweep of the playoffs: the Pac-12 Championship, the NCAA Regional Championship and NCAA Championship. With a season scoring average of 69.72, she also shattered the NCAA scoring record.

When the dust settled, Heck was the obvious choice for the Annika Award, which is presented annually to the most outstanding women’s college golfer. She credited a fresh perspective on golf as the reason for her massive success.

Due to COVID-19 protocols, Heck spent her fall quarter of freshman year practicing at home and taking classes virtually. “I just couldn’t wait to get there. I didn’t even stress about how I played,” she said. “I was just excited to wear the Stanford uniform and represent Stanford. With those expectations gone, I was able to play freely and have a good time.”

Many speculated that Heck would turn pro after her incredible season, but she has no plans to leave Stanford anytime soon. “There’s really no part of me that would want to leave and go pro. The LPGA Tour will always be there. Stanford won’t,” Heck said.

Perspective is a common theme in Heck’s life. Outside of her roles as a Stanford student and star athlete, she takes on yet another persona as a member of the Air Force ROTC. Every Friday, she wakes up at 4 a.m. to train on the San José State campus.

“I think ROTC has been huge in giving me a broader perspective. You go from talking about and training for literal war and then going on a golf course,” Heck said. “If I have a bad day on the golf course, it’s not the end-all-be-all for me. There are other things I love in life.”

But Heck hasn’t had many bad days on the golf course lately. To back up her stellar first year, Heck has already won twice in her sophomore season. Earlier in the spring, she set the Stanford scoring record for three rounds with an 18-under-par total at the Gunrock Invitational. Yesterday, Heck was named to this season’s Annika Award watch list.

The only golfer in the country whose success rivals Heck’s is Zhang.

Within her first three collegiate starts, Zhang accomplished something no other Stanford golfer, man or woman, had ever done before: she won all three times. For reference, Tiger Woods won only two of his first three starts.

“It’s such an honor to have my name and Tiger Woods’s name in the same sentence,” Zhang said. “I didn’t really expect it to happen, and didn’t really think it was ever going to happen.”

Although she’s a fierce competitor, Zhang is not particularly concerned with other people’s expectations of her or how she stacks up against the field. She believes that if she plays her game, the results will follow.

“I never really focused my eyes on trying to win or trying to become a champion and get in this or that event,” Zhang said. “I think that really helped me in the fall season because I didn’t really have to set myself up for trying to win each and every event, rather I was just trying to be a part of the team and have fun while doing it.”

It’s a strong mentality, which, coupled with her world-class playing ability, makes her nearly impossible to beat. In her seven tournaments at the collegiate level, she has never finished outside of the top ten and only finished outside of the top five once. Her head-to-head record is a remarkable 532-13-5.

“It’s so cool to see what she’s doing,” Heck said about Zhang. “It’s legendary. Rose is going to be one of the best golfers of all time in my opinion. She’s incredible, so it’s cool to witness that firsthand and say that she’s one of my best friends.”

The putt

In nearly two seasons of dominance, the Stanford women’s golf team and its members have collected every big tournament win, award and achievement except for one: the NCAA Championship.

The Cardinal were poised to win the NCAA title last season after commanding wins at the NCAA Regional and in the stroke play portion of the NCAA Championship. Then, the team suffered a heartbreaking loss to Arizona in the quarterfinals.

“It was definitely hard,” Krauter said. “It was a hard loss because we knew we were the better team, and we were in good shape. … I also didn’t play my best golf that day.”

The Cardinal squared off against the Wildcats in a best-of-five, match-play competition. Heck and then-sophomore Brooke Seay won their matches to put Stanford on the board, but both Krauter and then-freshman Sadie Englemann fell in theirs to knot the score at two.

The final match between then-sophomore Angelina Ye and Arizona’s Gile Bite Starkute would determine which team advanced in the NCAA Championship. And the match was an instant classic.

After a back-and-forth 18 holes, the two headed to a sudden death playoff.

On the first extra hole, Starkute had a chance to end the match. With Ye in for par, Starkute stood over for a 30-foot birdie putt from the fringe. She stroked the ball and watched intently as it rolled onto the green, up a hill, broke left-to-right and fell in the center of the cup.

Starkute pumped her fist, and the Wildcats stormed the green. As Arizona celebrated Starkute’s improbable putt and victory, the Stanford team could only watch speechless.

“It was definitely heartbreaking,” Heck said of the Arizona loss. “But it gives us something to work for this year.”

Ye, whose All-American season came to a close against the Wildcats, tries not to remember the match. “I always joke around and say I have selective memory. I just selectively forget about that,” she said. “To be honest, I don’t really remember much about that match.”

Stanford’s loss to Arizona in the quarterfinals is the only blemish in over a year of nearly flawless tournament play. While the defeat still stings, Walker believes it was an important experience for her team.

“One of the myths in sports is that all the great athletes, all the great teams got there because they didn’t have losses along the way, and they had more wins than everyone else,” Walker said. “But I think that’s a huge myth. I actually think the best athletes, the best players, the best teams have more losses than most.”

“If you don’t experience loss, you actually don’t have the privilege of learning. … Would we have liked to win? Sure. But at the end of the day, it’s part of the journey.”

The Cardinal’s journey will continue this spring season, as they finish off their regular season at the Silverado Showdown in Napa, Calif., before the postseason and national competition begin. Zhang, for one, knows where she wants the journey to take her.

“I think we have our eyes on the championship,” Zhang said. “I believe that our team’s so strong, and we’re really close with each other. … I think that makes up a really strong candidate for being a championship team by the end of the season.”

Gavin McDonell is a former managing editor of the sports section. He is a junior from San Francisco, California who is studying Economics and Mathematics. His rooting interests include the San Francisco Giants, the Golden State Warriors, Max Homa and of course, the Stanford Cardinal. Contact him at gmcdonell 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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