CARLSBAD, Calif. — The Stanford women’s golf team was a fluid circus of celebration on Wednesday afternoon in the match play final of the NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship. First, sophomore Megha Ganne secured the Cardinal’s second point of the afternoon by winning her match on Omni La Costa’s famous par-3 16th green. The group quickly exchanged hoots and hugs, and then hustled back toward the 15th green, where senior Rachel Heck had the opportunity to clinch the title.

Seconds later, Heck tapped in for par in her 3-and-2 victory and took off running toward her teammates as they celebrated No. 1-ranked Stanford’s 3-2 win over UCLA and a second national team title for the Cardinal in three years.

It was beyond fitting that Heck, playing as the anchor, would be the golfer to clinch the win, considering her stellar but injury-plagued career and the inspiration she provided her teammates by overcoming ailments that made her doubt whether she’d play any golf in her final season.

“It’s standard. That’s Rachel Heck for you,” said Stanford head coach Anne Walker, whose teams have won three national championships since the match-play era began in 2015. “She deserves that. It’s also like it was scripted that way.”

Even with the loss to the professional ranks of arguably the greatest amateur in women’s golf history, Rose Zhang, Stanford was a dominant team throughout the season. All five of its starters for the NCAAs are in the top 50 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings. And at La Costa, they earned the top seed after 72 holes, then routed Auburn 3-0 in the quarterfinals and dominated USC 3-1 in the semifinals.

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Kelly Xu, right, and Megha Ganne both won their matches as Stanford won the NCAA title.

Orlando Ramirez

On Wednesday, all three players who ultimately won matches for Stanford jumped into early leads and never trailed. In the second match out, Kelly Xu won the first two holes and prevailed 4 and 3 over Bruins sophomore transfer from Arkansas, Megan Royal, a Carlsbad local who grew up just minutes from the course.

Ganne, the New Jersey native best known for contending into the weekend of the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open while still in high school, won the opening hole against Natalie Vo, who tied the match with a birdie at No. 3. But Ganne won the next hole with a birdie, and later, when Vo had cut the margin to 2 down with three to play, Ganne hit a beautiful iron shot onto the green of the difficult 16th and finished off a 3-and-2 win.

Heck stormed to an early lead by making birdies on three of the first four holes. She lost only two holes and was 5 up through 12 en route to winning 4 and 3.

UCLA got its two points from Zoe Campos, a four-time tournament winner this season, defeating Sadie Englemann 4 and 3, and Caroline Canales making a spectacular birdie from the fairway at 18 in her 2-up defeat of Paula Martín Sampedro.

The conclusion to Heck’s career was remarkable, considering that this past winter she doubted if she’d be competing late in the season. In March 2023, Heck underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, in which nerves and blood vessels are compressed and can cause severe pain. A rib was removed during the surgery.

Heck’s comeback was slow—though she still made the most of it by graduating from Stanford’s ROTC program —and during the fall portion of this season, she and Walker had some heart-to-heart discussions about if she’d be able to compete at all.

“The winter was pretty rough,” Heck said. “… I really didn’t think I’d play again. I took the whole winter off from tournaments to hope I could play in the postseason.”

Like a swim or track athlete training to peak at the right time, Heck didn’t play much until late in the season, and there was zero rust in the return. She tied for seventh in the Pac-12 Championships, won UCLA’s NCAA regional, and then gutted it out at La Costa while playing a grueling 119 holes over six days.

“This is an outrageous amount of golf,” Walker said. “There was always a question mark around can she get through this.” But, the coach added, “When we were putting the pairings out, it was not by accident that we put Rachel in that last spot. We knew the gravity of today. She’s a mature kid who’s been through a lot. It felt like it would take a lot to rattler her, and I think that’s what we saw today.”

Heck, who announced in March that she would not turn pro, but rather work in the private equity business, ended her career with a remarkable nine victories, including the NCAA individual championship as a freshman, in only 25 starts becuase of injuries. Some players have college careers of 50 tournaments.

“A healthy Rachel Heck would have been one of the best players to ever play college golf, and she already is,” Walker said. “For her to be able to have this moment, well earned.”

With Heck’s recent stellar play, she has been asked, of course, if she’s reconsidering a pro career. “I think it’s so funny after regionals and throughout this week, people are saying, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to go pro?’” Heck said. “I don’t know where all you read that I’m not turning pro cause I don’t think I can do it. I just don’t want … that’s not me and where I see my life going.

“This,” she added, “is the perfect bow on an incredible journey in this game.”

This article was originally published on golfdigest.com