Air Force ROTC field training to U.S. Women’s Am champ? Rachel Heck marches into match play
Rachel Heck arrived in Los Angeles this week having not played but one competitive round in nearly a year. She hadn’t even practiced much this summer, recently completing her 17-day Air Force ROTC field training before cramming in some reps in the four days leading up to her departure for the 123rd U.S. Women’s Amateur at Bel-Air Country Club.
Now, she’s safely into match play for the fourth straight year at this championship.
“My mindset was that I can only control what I can control, and I need to focus on that,” Heck said Tuesday after shooting 70-67 to likely earn one of the top dozen or so seeds for the knockout stage, which begins Wednesday. “So much is out of my hands. I didn’t practice for 18 days. I haven’t played a full tournament since last October with surgery and everything.”
Only nothing’s been easy for Heck this past year.
Since the last time Heck teed it up in a U.S. Women’s Amateur, the 21-year-old rising Stanford senior has logged just five events prior to this week. Shortly after tying for 22nd at the Cardinal’s home event in late October, Heck was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome. She opted for surgery in early March, a procedure in which surgeons removed her first left rib.
Heck has kept the bone as a keepsake, even slipping it into teammate Rose Zhang’s golf bag for one round at last spring’s NCAA Championship, where Heck played the first round after rehabbing like hell to get back on the golf course. She shot 82 that day and was subbed out for the remainder of the championship.
Heck’s next competitive round? This past Monday at Bel-Air.
Unlike most of her peers, Heck has barely gotten her golf clubs dirty these past couple months. She left July 14 for Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, where she spent about two-and-a-half weeks securing her prop and wings, which are given to AFROTC cadets after completing their field training. Heck, who has been involved in AFROTC since freshman year when she also won the NCAA individual title among six total spring victories, told Golfweek that she woke up each morning at 4 a.m., was without not only her phone but also any kind of watch, and was challenged more physically and mentally than she’d ever been.
“I’m blessed to have something to fight for and incredible people to fight with,” Heck wrote afterward on Instagram. Her mom, Stacy, shared some photos on Facebook, too, saying of her middle daughter, “I’ve truly never seen her happier.”
When Heck landed back home in Memphis, she had less than a week to prepare before hopping on a plane to Los Angeles. After a rigorous 17 days in hot-and-humid Alabama without hitting a single golf shot, Heck’s mindset was this: “I’m just going to put my head down and work. I have it in me. I’m a competitor. I’ve played a lot of rounds of golf in my life, so I’m just going to dig deep and find that and know that it’s in me even though it’s been a while.”
It has been a while, yet Heck, who advanced to the semifinals at the 2021 U.S. Women’s Amateur, has looked like her vintage self these past 36 holes. She minimized mistakes in her first round, where she carded one eagle and one birdie, before birdieing each of her first two holes on Tuesday and eventually circling a number on her card five times.
Heck said that if this year has taught her anything, it’s the value of being healthy. Heck used to be the girl who’d often push herself well past her physical limits and frustrate her trainers.
“But I’ve really learned to be patient and take care of my body,” Heck says now, adding that she played just nine holes on each of her practice days last weekend. “I don’t want what happened last year to happen again. … I need to prioritize my health and my rest.”
Especially coming off the physical demands of field training. And should Heck make a deep run at Bel-Air this week, well, that won’t be a walk in the park either. Not that she won’t embrace another taxing challenge.
“If it is endurable, then endure it,” Heck also shared on Instagram.
For Heck, she’s just happy to have a chance to keep playing. She hasn’t done that much lately, whether because of injury or other priorities and passions. But despite the time away, Heck hasn’t forgotten what it takes to win a big tournament.
“I’m grateful to get that spot [in match play],” Heck said, “and now it’s completely refresh, start over, new tournament, new day tomorrow.”
Heck recently earned her prop and wings.
Her next mission: Winning the most beautiful prize in women’s golf, the Roberta Cox Trophy.