When Rachel Heck, 19, arrived at Mirimichi Golf Course in Memphis on June 27, she looked like any other young golfer, her wavy hair pulled into a low ponytail and dressed in a classic Stanford University polo and corresponding Cardinal-red hat.
Except Heck is not just any college golfer – she is the biggest rising star in women’s golf. Often compared to a young Tiger Woods, Heck won the NCAA individual championship in her freshman year at Stanford and was named the 2021 Annika Award recipient as the nation’s top female college golfer. She also became just the third woman in NCAA history to sweep the postseason by winning conference, regional and national titles.
But as the young star spoke, she sounded like any other college student, gushing about friends, boyfriend and family.
The Memphis native returned to Mirimichi to say good luck to this year’s Bubba National Junior Invitational competitors. She was greeted by a group reporters lugging cameras and microphones in the 90-degree heat as though she was a young Woods.
Heck occasionally glanced to the side to smile at her boyfriend, West Point student Sam Killebrew. A year older than Heck, he watched on from a golf cart, his face shaded by a respective ‘USMA’ hat.
The two have been in a long-distance relationship for two years. Heck recounted that when Killebrew packed up to attend basic training (just five months into dating) the couple could only communicate via letters in the mail.
“As soon as he got his phone back, I feel like it’s been smooth sailing from there because I can talk to him all the time. It being so hard at first and having no communication was the worst part, but now that I can FaceTime him, it’s no problem,” Heck said.
It was Killebrew who inspired Heck to look into joining ROTC at Stanford. Heck later settled on Air Force ROTC because of the opportunity to one day serve and play golf professionally.
Now she juggles ROTC with being an athlete and struggles with the 4 a.m. wakeup calls the morning after a tournament.
“My alarm would go off and I would just almost want to cry, but I’d get myself out of bed and be like, ‘You know what, I wanted to do this, I’m going to do this.’ And by the end of the day I’d feel accomplished and realize I’m lucky enough to get to do what I love,” Heck said.
Despite coming off an appearance at the LGPA Tour’s U.S. Open, Heck wants to live a normal college life as long as possible before becoming a full-time professional.
During her interviews, Heck often looked beyond the cameras for reassurance from her dad, Robert Heck. For most of her golf career, Heck has relied on her father to be her caddie, meaning he has been by her side as she swung her way to national fame.
This year, being across the country from her parents meant Heck was forced to adjust to living without her family. But after being home for the first half of her freshman year due to the pandemic, she was confident she was ready to move out and kickstart her time in California.
“I think by February they (her parents) were like, ‘All right, get out of here.’ I was definitely ready to get out of my room,” Heck said.
Heck found another group of people to lean on and call family in her golf team at Stanford. The team is made up of eight young women, and Heck beamed as she described the group.
Because the team was living together, eating every meal together and practicing together, Heck found that her friendships came naturally. The team bonded on van rides to tournaments.
“We all made a playlist, and even the songs now will come on in the car and I’ll just get nostalgic and be like, ‘Aw, it reminds me of nationals,’ and my parents will just laugh and be like, ‘We know Rachel.’ You know, I’m only a freshman but I just already look back on the past few months and get nostalgic and I just can’t wait to be back already,” Heck said.
Heck is happy to be home for the summer. She has plans to play in a few more tournaments, both LPGA and amateur, but otherwise will enjoy her time fishing and hanging out with loved ones before she returns to Stanford in the fall.
Claire Kuwana is a sports reporting intern at the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org follow her on Twitter @clairekuwana.