Profiles in Courage at the Women’s Amateur
On a grueling day defined by drama, Rachel Heck and Latanna Stone were the stars, setting up an elite quaterfinal
By Alan Shipnuck
August 10, 2023
LOS ANGELES—Rachel Heck did not bring the rib to Bel-Air Country Club. It remains at the family home in Memphis, safely encased in a test tube. But she does love to show off the rib, which was surgically extracted last spring. Heck toted the rib to Air Force ROTC boot camp in the sweltering backwaters of Alabama. On the second night, she whipped it out for her fellow grunts, who were impressed and grossed out in equal measure. The rib is a tangible sign of the maladies that compromised Heck’s ascent as a dominant college golfer, but she retains a certain affection for the slender little bone, the removal of which has left a jagged scar near her collarbone.
“I love to show it off, I think it’s so funny,” Heck said on Thursday afternoon at the 123rd U.S. Women’s Amateur, having won two matches on a grueling day to punch her ticket to the quarterfinals. “I want to do something fun with it—maybe turn it into a keychain? I don’t know, it’s a big decision, I’m not rushing into it.”
With 148 players now having been sent home, Heck has (re)emerged as a keynote player. She had a monster freshman season at Stanford, winning a school-record six tournaments and taking the NCAA individual crown. Two years ago, as a sophomore, she fought through mononucleosis to win twice and help lead the Cardinal to the national championship. But throughout her junior year Heck was plagued by mysterious pain and swelling in her left shoulder and neck. Her fingers became so numb she could barely grip a club. She was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition in which blood vessels and nerves are compressed between the first rib and collarbone. Like Cher and the Biblical Adam, she had to lose a rib. Between recovering from surgery and ROTC training—which ended only a week before the start of the Women’s Am—Heck had played exactly one competitive round since last October. She may be rusty but she has emerged from the various challenges as one tough young woman. Rubbing her scar in the parking lot at Bel-Air Country Club, Heck said, “I kind of like it. it’s a reminder that I can be strong.”
Indeed, how many elite golfers could survive 17 days of ROTC training? Second Lt. Heck describes the experience as “awesome but grueling.”
The same could be said of Thursday at the Women’s Am, which began at dawn with the second round. The first sign that it was going to be an eventful day came when No. 1 seed Briana Chacon lost 4 and 3 in the morning’s first match, to Catie Craig, a sophomore at Western Kentucky and the reigning Conference USA individual champ. But in the afternoon Sweet 16, Craig was vanquished in a sudden-death thriller by Catherine Rao, the 2023 Ivy League rookie of the year at Princeton.
Latanna Stone was an even more graphic example of how wild things can get during back-to-back matches. In a hard-fought morning tilt she beat fellow Curtis Cupper Rachel Kuehn. Then she drew 2022 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion Yana Wilson, a relentless competitor who is seemingly never out of a hole. Beginning on number 3, Wilson won five straight holes and Stone was on the ropes. Throughout her standout career at LSU, Stone has been known as a fiery player, sometimes to her own detriment. She grew up a bit during a couple of appearances at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, at which she finished tied for 2nd and 8th.
“ANWA definitely matured me emotion-wise,” Stone says. “It’s such a big tournament, making sure you carry yourself really well is super important and having a good attitude. No one likes to see a crazy person on the golf course, especially if young girls or boys are watching. It’s always important to be a good role model to them.”
Stone steadfastly stayed in the match, and she closed the gap with a burst of birdies on the back nine. She won the 18th hole to force extra holes. On the par-5 1st hole, Stone made two fearless swings to set up an eagle putt, which she cozied to 18 inches. With Wilson in for a par, the match was Stone’s…until her tap-in lipped out, a bolt of lightning that would have felled most competitors. Instead, Stone marched resolutely to the second extra hole and drilled a 25-foot birdie putt to win the match. Hey, it’s Tinseltown—there has to be some melodrama.
Friday afternoon’s Round of 8 should be elite. Among the battle-hardened players still standing are Rao, who rallied from 2 down with seven holes to play in the afternoon versus Craig, becoming the first player to reach back-to-back quarterfinals in the Women’s Amateur since Gabi Ruffels in 2019 and ’20. Then there is Anna Davis, the charismatic 2022 ANWA champion, who has yet to play the 17th hole in any of her three matches. With her twin brother, Billy, as her caddie and straight man, Davis has looked frighteningly relaxed marching through the bracket.
But as the Women’s Am continues to heat up, all eyes will be on Heck as she tries to complete a comeback for the ages. She couldn’t stop smiling on Thursday evening, noting that she is surprised at the sharpness of her game and her golf fitness as she traverses Bel-Air’s rugged terrain. (All those pre-dawn jogs at ROTC training have their benefits.) Heck has also been buoyed by having her father, Robert, as a caddie, saying how sweet it is to get so much quality time with her old man. Given all that she has been through, it’s easy to imagine Heck is already pleased with her week. But the competitive instincts have come rushing back for this decorated champion. “I’m definitely happy with how things have gone,” she says, “but there is still work to do.”
The USGA is a partner to the Fire Pit Collective but has no editorial oversight.
In 1994, Alan wrote his first cover story for Sports Illustrated as a 21 year-old intern, and in the ensuing quarter-century he typed two dozen more. He is the author of eight books, including best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees; The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger); and Phil. Shipnuck has won 13 first-place awards in the annual Golf Writers Association of America writing contest, breaking the record of Dan Jenkins, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Alan lives in Carmel, Cal.