It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and Stanford junior Rachel Heck is walking back to her dorm from her piano class – one she takes with her teammate, Caroline Sturdza. “We’re the only ones who don’t know what we’re doing,” she says, laughing. Right now, the class is learning Chopin in preparation for a performance in June. One of the best amateur golfers in the world is keeping busy these days, just not with golf.
This is one of the rare times, she claims, that she isn’t with her team, who are in Arizona fighting for a PAC-12 title. Instead of playing beside them, she’s refreshing Golfstat for the duration of this conversation. “Right now, I’m my team’s biggest fan,” she says. “I’m so nervous – they’re three back.”
Stanford’s number-one fan was once the team’s greatest contributor. Heck’s breakout freshman year amounted to a six-win season (the most single-season wins in program history) and won the NCAA individual title. In her sophomore year, she won two more times in a season interrupted by a bout with mono before she contributed to Stanford’s team title in 2022.
But for a second spring in a row, Heck has had to reprise her role as the Cardinal’s biggest cheerleader. This time, the culprit is thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition where the blood vessels or nerves in the space between the first rib and collarbone are compressed. As of now, there’s no timetable for her return.
“We got the win (last year at NCAAs), so it made up for everything,” Heck said of her absence in her sophomore year. “Learning I had to get surgery in February and that I was going to be out for an indefinite period of time, it’s hard to come to terms with. I’m a competitor. I want to be out there.”
The bubbly, positive demeanor she usually displays has been much harder to maintain. The physical scars on her body cut as deep as the emotional ones. Three months after Stanford won the National Championship, Heck was back at school gearing up for her junior year when she began to feel an uncomfortable sensation in her shoulder and neck. Whenever she played golf, her fingers would become numb, and the blood vessels in her hands would swell up. The pain was mostly localized to her hands, but simple tasks like cutting her food at dinner became unbearable.
One event, in particular, exposed the inevitable. Nearing the end of a round, Heck could barely grip her club. Her head coach, Anne Walker, began walking beside her when Heck burst into tears. She’d hooked and shanked her last two shots. “I can’t hold the club. I can’t do it,” she cried. Walker couldn’t bear to watch Heck continue. “Rachel, pick up the ball. Let’s be done.” Heck insisted on the opposite, scrapping together a steady end to her round – but a visit to the athletic trainer with few answers left her feeling despondent.
In the following months, the pain migrated to her elbow, shoulder, and then her neck. Desperate for relief, she started intense physical therapy and decided after Stanford’s home event that she would be done for the season. She noticed some slight improvement within a few months and opted to try playing again.
One week of dedicated practice only proved how much she’d fallen apart. She was worse off than before, and surgery became her only option. In order to live pain-free, Heck would need her rib removed in order to clear out space for her blood vessels and nerves.
The day before her operation, Heck was all alone while her best friends were competing at the Juli Inkster Meadow Club Invitational. Her mind was racing. She’d never had any type of surgery before, let alone a major one that required losing a rib. The season was just entering crunch time. She’d been reinstated into ROTC and was anticipating field training in Alabama after the National Championship. Now her entire future was in doubt.
Seeking peace, she ventured outdoors with her Bible in hand. Combing through passages, her worries quickly abated when she read through 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Heck has held onto those words since. “I felt God had me in his hands,” she said. And so did her people. After her surgery, her mother, Stacy, and Sturdza traded nurse duties – from driving her to class to bringing her medicine whenever she needed it.
A few weeks later, spring break arrived – a week she intended to spend at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. The weight of everything was overwhelming. She called home to Memphis in the middle of the night, bawling. The next morning, she was on a flight home.
“I think it's important for people to know that you can let yourself break,” Heck says. “It's important to let your soul process things, to be patient when you do have those breakdowns, and to seek out what you need, instead of bottling up and pretending that you don't need anything like at that moment.”
As broken as she felt, Heck couldn’t stay from her team for very long. From Memphis, she followed Rose Zhang’s historic run at Augusta – and quickly realized she needed to be there. She booked a last-minute flight for Friday and was Zhang’s plus-one for the player dinner at Berckmans Place. The two friends watched Niall Horan perform, and it was then Heck understood this was where she was always meant to be.
When Saturday morning rolled around, she prayed with Zhang before her final round. She walked every single hole. She sat in the winner’s press conference, grinning ear to ear as Zhang gave her a heartfelt shoutout: “I’m so so inspired by her constant demeanor and her mindset on recovering and her ability to just have a positive outlook on things, even when things are very hard,” Zhang said. “No one knows what she’s actually going through except for herself.”
It was a cathartic moment. Only one week before, Rachel Heck had hit the panic button on life. Supporting her friend offered some much-needed perspective. “I didn’t need to touch a club for that to be the best week of my life,” she said.
But the every day – the in-between – is the true battle.
It’s been nearly two months since her surgery. The rib now sits in her bathroom – with jokes of potentially making a keychain out of it to “freak people out.” She’s self-sufficient but is back to the grind of weekly physical therapy. Her golf is limited to putting practice – so her world is colored in things like the Memphis Grizzlies, a heavier academic schedule, and any ROTC training she physically can.
“It’s killing me not to have a certain progression timeline,” she says. But as she rehabs and waits, she’s vowed to be her team’s biggest (and most visible) fan. As it turns out, they have been thinking of her just as much as she is thinking of them. “We’re gonna step up for her,” says best friend and teammate Sadie Englemann. “She’s made everyone’s life so much better.” Englemann, whose college career has blossomed in the past few months, has assumed her best friend’s role in the lineup – even though she’d like nothing more than to be playing right beside her. As the No. 1 seed at the Pullman Regional, there’s an enormous target on the defending champions' backs, with plenty of teams eager to capitalize on Stanford’s injury-ridden lineup.
After a meteoric freshman year that saw her emerge as the best player in college golf, the past two years of Rachel Heck’s golf career have felt almost unfair. But her selflessness has shone through in the moments that don’t belong to her. She’s finding magic in what once might have been mundane. While she’s unaware of what’s ahead, she knows one thing for certain: “I can’t get caught up in making plans for myself and being distraught when they don’t work out.”