When I was little, my dad told me golf would take me far. I dreamed of U.S. Open trophies.

Growing up, I missed out on sleepovers, summer camps, school plays, and more to practice and compete. I grew to love the sport, but it was difficult for me to comprehend why my life looked so different from those of my classmates. During our local theater's summer camp rendition of “The Little Mermaid,” my friend Haley was Sebastian, my friend Mary Olivia was Flounder, and I was practicing putting.

Having my name etched into the Hall of Fame would surely be worth it.

Young Rachel Heck hold her dad's hand, smiling and waving
Young Rachel Heck hold her dad's hand, smiling and waving

Each year, I fell more and more in love with the game. I spent countless evenings playing putting contests with my dad and sisters under the lights of Windyke Country Club. I laughed and competed and celebrated each win as if I had won a major. I was training to win the U.S. Open. My dad was just spending time with his daughters.

By middle school, my dedication was solidified. I was a golfer, and I would be the best golfer to ever live. I followed my older sister Abby on college visits, knowing in the back of my mind that if I did go to college, I would only stay a year or so. In the meantime, I begged my parents to let me do online high school, or at least send me to a golf academy in Florida. They responded with a firm, resounding, “No.”

I was frustrated. Why had I given up so much for this game, just to attend “normal” high school and do “normal” high school things? Very little about my life felt normal. I was a golfer, and attending school from 8:00 to 3:15 was only getting in the way of that. If I was going to go to high school and college, though, I was going to do it right. During my freshman year, I took the ACT and SAT, and in January, Coach Anne Walker offered me a coveted spot on the Stanford Women’s Golf Team. Someone once told me, “If you’re smart enough to go to Stanford, you’re not dumb enough not to go.” It was a no-brainer. Stanford would undoubtedly be the perfect stepping stone into a professional career.

That summer, I qualified for the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open. At age 15, I was the youngest player in the field. Reflecting on that week never fails to bring tears to my eyes. With my dad by my side, I walked around awestruck for seven days. My practice routine that week was dictated by what my idols were doing— If Michelle Wie was putting, I was putting, and you could find my mom sneaking pictures from behind the ropes. My dad would walk out and pretend to give me advice. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I just want to be next to you,” he would whisper. With trembling hands, I made a 4-footer to make the cut on Friday. On Sunday, I was paired with Lexi Thompson. I was on top of the world. That week, I got to live my dreams and catch a preview of what my future would surely become.

Fast-forward past my first experiences playing for the United States, another major championship, and too many AJGAs to count, and now I am a junior in high school with the most pressing issue in my life being whether I would play in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur or the ANA Inspiration. That was, however, until I suffered a back injury that forced me to put the clubs down for a couple of months. What should have been nothing but a small roadblock on my journey as an athlete turned into an existential crisis. Without golf, I was lost. I was faced with the question, “Who am I?” Without golf, I had no idea.

Even when I was able to start playing again, I knew something was not right. I did not recognize myself anymore, on or off the course. All my joy was gone, and all my smiles were fake. That fall, I became severely depressed. In that period of darkness, I realized I needed something more than golf, and I vowed that I would find it.

I told my parents I wanted, perhaps, to try Air Force ROTC. They told me I was crazy. It would be simply impossible to keep up with Stanford academics, Division I golf, a social life, and the military.

I watched a sermon recently, in which the pastor explained that God places huge ambitions into our hearts, but he does not tell us how we will achieve them. He does, however, always show us the next step. I surely had no idea how ROTC was going to work with my schedule, but I knew that joining was my next step.

Rachel Heck sits in the cockpit of a fighter jet
Rachel Heck sits in the cockpit of a fighter jet

My freshman year at Stanford felt like the culmination of everything for which I had ever dreamed. I successfully completed my first year at Stanford, highlighted by a clean sweep of the postseason and capped off with the Annika Award. I asked God, “Why is this happening now? I have so many years of golf ahead of me, so why is everything coming together now?”

Rachel Heck and her parents pose with the NCAA women's golf championship trophy.
Rachel Heck and her parents pose with the NCAA women's golf championship trophy.

What I didn’t know was that the next few years would be riddled with sickness and injuries and invisible trials that I’m grateful I could not have foreseen. What I didn’t know is that the next time I would potentially play a full postseason would be my senior year. I have grappled with anger, hope, depression, joy, and everything in between, but amid each trial in which I so desperately sought the clarity of a deeper meaning, God always showed me the next step. Right now, the next step is not professional golf.

During these turbulent years largely away from the game, I fell in love with life again. Even though the late nights of writing papers bring immense stress, I absolutely love what I study. Even though I dread waking up at 4 a.m. on Fridays, I cherish every memory made with my ROTC wingmen. Even though it scares me to step away from the game and into an unknown future, I could not be more excited.

It’s hard to imagine how it will feel to put my clubs away at the end of the season. How will it feel to stand over my last putt? How will I feel waving back to my teammates one last time? I still look forward to playing amateur events and, hopefully, many more USGA Championships. However, it will be undeniably different. Taking a step away from the game that has given me everything has been a gut-wrenching decision. To say golf has given me the most incredible memories is to minimize the experiences I ask God every day why I deserve.

I was strongly considering attributing my decision to my injuries. It is true that even if I wanted to, I do not know if my body would hold up on tour. But frankly, after a couple of years of painful deliberation, I have come to realize that I do not want to play professional golf. I do not want a life on the road and in the public eye. I no longer dream of the U.S. Open trophies and the Hall of Fame. And I realize now that these dreams were never what my dad intended when he first put a club in my hand. He pushed me when I was young so that I could find myself in the position I am right now: Stepping into the future equipped with the skills to tackle any challenge and the courage to pave my own path. He insisted I lived a “normal life” so that I could recognize that true happiness does not come from accolades but from the love of those around me. He gave me everything so that I could leave college feeling as though I had the world in the palm of my hand. In the spring he and my mom will pin on my Lieutenant bars. They will watch me walk across the stage and receive my Stanford degree. I will begin an internship in private equity. Golf did, indeed, take me far.

So here’s to new roads, and new challenges. Here’s to the people who made me, me. Not Rachel the golfer. Just Rachel. I do not know what the future holds. However, I am grateful to God for showing me the next step, and I am grateful to the game that gave me the world.

Rachel Heck is a senior on the Stanford women's golf team, whose impressive career includes NCAA individual (2021) and team (2022) championships, two Curtis Cups (2021, 2022), and eight collegiate victories, tied for the third most in school history. She appeared in our "A Week in the Life" documenting the 2022 Stanford women's golf team, which you can watch here.

When she graduates from Stanford with a degree in Political Science, she will begin an internship in private equity and be pinned as a Lieutenant of the United States Air Force.