There was no other choice and no real debate. Still, late on Tuesday afternoon, it became official as Stanford freshman and LPGA USGA Girls' Golf alumni Rachel Heck received the ANNIKA Award as the year’s most outstanding female DI college golfer. Heck is only the second freshman in history to receive the prestigious award that is presented by Stifel in conjunction with the ANNIKA Foundation.
“Every time anyone asks me about my favorite golfer and my role model, it’s Annika, it’s the easiest answer,” Heck said after the announcement. “She’s incredible. What she did with her career in golf speaks for itself. But what she has done after that is unbelievable. She’s given so much back. She’s spent the rest of her life giving back to the game, growing golf, growing girls’ golf. So, to win an award with her name on it is so special.”
Heck was the only choice. Not only did she win six college events in an abbreviated 2021 season (Stanford did not play in the fall because of COVID-19 restriction), she became only the ninth player in history to win the NCAA individual championship as a freshman and only the third freshman in history to sweep the post season, winning her conference championship (the PAC-12), her NCAA regional title and the national championship. The other two players to sweep the post season are Marisa Baena in 1996 and Annie Park in 2013.
“What Rachel did was amazing,” Park, who has played on the LPGA Tour since 2016, said of Heck’s accomplishments. “For her to be only the third freshman to sweep the postseason is pretty amazing. I don’t even know how I did it. Every time I look back, I’m like, ‘how did I do that?’”
Another active LPGA Tour player, Austin Ernst, also won the NCAA individual championship as a freshman at LSU. When talking about that accomplishment and what it could potentially mean to Heck’s future, Ernst told LPGA.com, “She’s had an unbelievable year. You have so many adjustments (as a freshman). You’re trying to adjust to college and trying to make the team. But once you start playing, golf is just golf. You just have to prove to yourself that you can play at that level.”
Earnst didn’t win six times her freshman season with the Tigers. But she did win an event in the spring prior to traveling to the NCAA championships. “That confidence builds as the year goes on,” Ernst said. “For me, it was a real springboard to where I am today. To see that I could win at that level, beating one of the best fields in amateur golf, it opens your eyes, and it opens some doors. I got to play in the ANA Inspiration the following year. There were a lot of things that came from that win that helped me.
“Even today, I can look back on that win and see what I did well and how I performed under pressure. I think that was the most pressure I’d played under at that point.”
Heck will likely be inundated with advice. Some people will suggest that she turn pro immediately. Others will counsel her to stay at Stanford, enjoy the college experience, and remember that the LPGA Tour will still be there once her amateur career ends.
“I think she will feel pressure both ways,” Ernst said. “There will be pressure to stay at Stanford and honor the commitment she made, and pressure (to turn pro) and go play at the next level. I think she needs to sit down and evaluate what’s best for her.
“For me, it was best to leave (LSU) after two years. That was the right call for me. I was ready (to turn pro). But I also benefited greatly from going to college for two years. I think she needs to see what’s best for her, whether that’s turning (pro immediately) or staying in school for two years, three years or four years and getting her degree.
“Whatever she decides, she’s a great player and is going to have a great career out here.”