The upsets – at least according to seed – remained in vogue on Thursday at the 121st U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship.
But the world’s No. 2 player successfully managed all of the turbulence at Westchester Country Club, even when it appeared her championship run was about to end.
Stanford University sophomore Rachel Heck showed why she was the college player of the year with a come-from-behind, Round-of-16 victory in 19 holes over Brooke Matthews to continue her march toward joining Vicki Goetze (1992) as the second player in history to win NCAA Division I individual and U.S. Women’s Amateur titles in the same year.
Heck, whose 69.72 stroke average in the COVID-19-shortened season of 2020-2021 was the lowest ever in women’s college golf history, was 2 down with two to play against the University of Arkansas standout before winning Nos.17, 18 and 19.
Heck’s 15-foot birdie putt on the par-5 18th forced extra holes and a two-putt par on the par-3 19th secured her spot in Friday’s quarterfinals. A relieved Heck raised her arms over her head after the knee-knocking, four-foot par putt fell in the hole.
“I think that's what this tournament is all about,” said Heck, who lost in the Round of 16 last year to eventual champion Rose Zhang as the No.1 seed. “You expect to have these kinds of matches. Really high pressure. My hands are shaking, my heart is beating so fast, but that's what's fun about it.”
For the first two rounds of match play, Heck hardly broke a sweat, going 13 holes on Wednesday and needing only 12 holes on Thursday morning to defeat Australian Grace Kim, 7 and 6, in the Round of 32.
But this Round-of-16 encounter between two players in the top 40 of the rankings lived up to its marquee billing.
Neither player led by more than a hole until Matthews birdied the par-4 15th and won the par-3 16th with a par to go 2 up after Heck failed to get up and down from a greenside bunker. Matthews, however, opened the door for Heck with a bogey on 17, setting the stage for the dramatic conclusion.
Heck, who became the third-ever player to sweep conference, regional and NCAA individual honours, converted her birdie putt on the par-5 18th and watched Matthews’ 12-footer just slide left of the hole. And when Matthews failed to get up and down for par after missing the green on the 176-yard 19th hole – Westchester’s first hole – it opened the door for Heck.
“I think it's super important to stay mentally [strong], and I think my dad (Robert) and I really did that today,” said Heck of the on-course bond she has with her caddie/father. “You know, never giving up. She would drain a long putt, [but] we're still in it. We're not going to get too down on ourselves.”
Two of the other seven quarterfinalists barely snuck into the draw, including playoff survivor Jensen Castle, who is trying to become the third No.63 seed to win a USGA championship following Clay Ogden (2005 U.S. Amateur Public Links) and Steven Fox (2012 U.S. Amateur).
Battling a fractured rib that kept her away from several big events this summer, the University of Kentucky junior defeated this year’s Georgia Women’s Amateur and Georgia Women’s Open champion Jenny Bae 4 and 2.
No.61 seed Cara Heisterkamp bidding to become the third-youngest champion in U.S. Women’s Amateur history behind Kimberly Kim (2006) and Lydia Ko (2012), was even more impressive in eliminating Aline Krauter 7 and 5.
Krauter, one of three Stanford University golfers to reach the final 16, was looking to become the first player in 25 years (Kelli Kuehne) to have captured the Women’s Amateur titles of the U.S. and Great Britain.
The other quarterfinalists are University of Arizona All-American and world No.21 Yu-Chiang Hou, Purdue University junior Kan Bunnabodee, Stanford junior Brooke Seay, Virginia Tech senior and 2021 U.S. Women’s Open qualifier Emily Mahar of Australia and Michigan State sophomore Valentina Rossi.
Mahar, who holed a long chip on No.17 en route to a comeback victory over fellow Aussie Maddison Hinson-Tolchard on Wednesday, produced more dramatics late Thursday, chipping in from 80 feet on the par-5 18th hole for birdie to close out 14-year-old Rianne Mikhaela Malixi 1 up. Malixi was the second-youngest player in the field and the youngest to qualify for match play.
“I had the exact same shot this morning in my first match, so I mean [my caddie] walked up to me and she said, ‘At least you know how this one goes,’ even though this morning it was for eagle and this time it was to close it out,” Mahar said of the chip. “I just felt really confident in that spot on the green and knew that at worst I would get up and down; went in.”