The Am Guide: U.S. Women’s Amateur and Mental Health
A look at three compelling competitors heading into this week’s U.S. Women’s Amateur
By Jordan Perez
Simone Biles’s decision to walk away from the world’s largest stage to preserve her health has drawn both support and criticism. Fellow Olympian Rory McIlroy noted, “The weight on her shoulders is massive.” McIlroy has openly discussed mental health on numerous occasions as it relates to being an athlete, and he applauded Biles and Naomi Osaka (who withdrew from this year’s French Open) for taking ownership of their lives.
Women in golf have also stepped forward to share their stories, with accounts from professionals such as Lizette Salas, Christina Kim and Alena Sharp detailing the struggles faced by athletes who compete at the highest level. The plight isn’t unique to the pros; the pressure trickles down to amateurs, who have fought their own battles in their journey to this week’s U.S. Women’s Amateur.
They’ll dazzle you with their talent and grit at Westchester Country Club, in Rye, N.Y., but the players’ candor is just as captivating. Here are the stories of three women in the U.S. Women’s Amateur field who have dealt with their own set of challenges in their trek to the pinnacle of the game.
Stitching yourself together: Hailey Borja, Michigan
Loved ones and crochet have helped keep Hailey Borja afloat—and they played a large role in her return to the Amateur.
For qualifying at Peninsula Country Club in San Mateo, Calif., Borja’s mom, Diana, accompanied her daughter on the 414-mile trip from their home in Orange County. Family in the Bay Area turned out in droves to give Borja her own gallery as she shot a 2-under 70 to qualify for her third U.S. Women’s Amateur. It’s another milestone for the rising Michigan junior, who in 2021 became the first player in program history to reach the final round of stroke play at the NCAA Championships, ultimately tying for fifth.
One of the most jovial presences in the amateur game, Borja tries hard to make golf feel fun, with mid-fairway jokes and a favorite warmup tune becoming the soundtrack to any given round. “I play my best when I’m calm,” Borja says. “I’m more thinking about other things, but playing golf at the same time.”
It wasn’t always that way. As a child, she struggled to find an outlet for her anxiety, which derived from her quest to be a perfectionist. At the age of 11, a cousin introduced her to crochet, which became the ideal hobby away from golf and all of her other stresses. Dozens of YouTube tutorials later, Borja was hooking away at her worries, crafting stuffed animals, scarves, shirts—even a rainbow 3-wood headcover she rocked for some time. “I use it as an outlet because I’m all concentrated on one task that’s in my hand,” Borja says. “I’m doing everything I can, and I’m not really thinking about everything else that’s going on.”
With the same confidence she displayed in qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Amateur, Borja recently shared an Instagram post detailing her struggle with anxiety. She also talked about her crocheting hobby and began accepting commissions for her work. The accompanying photo of herself styled in a purple striped vest was a good advertisement for her work.
Borja says a major motivation for opening up about her mental health was to show solidarity with those in a similar position. “I can let other people know that they’re not alone, (that) I’m also figuring out a way to control how I feel,” she says. “Especially with the pandemic, I’m sure a lot of people have gone down the same road and maybe they can find an interest in crocheting as well.”
Michigan teammate Ashley Lau knows firsthand about Borja’s willingness to help. “She has a kind heart,” Lau says. “Whenever I face difficulties, she doesn’t hesitate to lend a hand.”
Borja’s candid nature has resulted in plenty of requests for halter tops, sweaters and other goods, which will keep her busy well into the new school year. On average, Borja spends about five days working on each vest.
As for golf, Borja has employed the best formula to keep it light, even with the biggest week on the calendar having finally arrived. “I’m just ready to have some fun out there,” she says.
A leap of faith, and a leap across the ocean: Makensie Toole, George Fox University
Demanding a high school graduate have the rest of their life mapped is a daunting task. Makensie Toole, a rising sophomore at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore., knows that as well as anyone.
Toole went undefeated in the 2019-20 high school season, after winning the Australian national championship in 2018. But because college golf doesn’t exist in Australia, this gifted athlete and student was at a crossroads after her high school graduation from Belmont Christian in New South Wales. So she took a gap year … as did the rest of the world when the pandemic hit. Toole had talked herself into enrolling at a school to study law, but it was the reflection time during lockdown that helped her decide to pursue her golf dreams.
One day Toole found an article about George Fox, a small, Division III private Christian university tucked 30 minutes outside of Portland. A semester of online classes and a travel exemption later, Toole was off to the United States, with no clue of when she’d return; Australia’s borders have remained shut, and they are unlikely to open until 2022 at the earliest.
On the golf course, Toole quickly adapted to her new environment: A three-time medalist during the regular season, she helped George Fox to its eighth consecutive conference championship while becoming its first individual national champion. But she grew homesick being away from her tight-knit family. Group chat messages and FaceTimes helped her get by, but the issue remained. Then most of Toole’s teammates left George Fox for the summer.
To fill the time, Toole took a pro shop job and on a lark decided to try her hand at the U.S. Women’s Amateur qualifier at Chambers Bay, which she knew only as the site of Jordan Spieth’s memorable 2015 U.S. Open victory. “14-year-old me was just fangirling,” Toole says. “I was just so excited to be able to play it, and obviously that helped me.”
She took medalist honors there too.
The key to Toole’s success is not ultra-refined technique but more like a laid-back Aussie attitude. “I’m definitely not a very technical player,” she says. “I’m much more of a feel kind of person, and I like having a really simple game plan that I can just focus on.”
Sounds a lot like how she ended up here.
This week, Toole will travel to the East Coast for the first time; the D-III championship in Michigan was as far east as she’d been in the U.S.
Toole’s zest for exploring the world around her and her affable personality help her adapt to unfamiliar places. Example? Her vivacious TikToks describing her golf highs and lows have helped endear her to fans far beyond George Fox. (The story of her arriving for a tournament sans golf clubs is a classic.)
But what she has learned during this first year in the U.S. is too deep for TikTok. In the recruiting profile she used as she searched for her new home, Toole wrote, “I aspire to compete for a college team at a high level, and to eventually lead it, as the team-oriented nature of college is something I love.”
She forgot to include the part where she’d take care of each of those things in a single semester.
Self-care and the journey to self love: Rachel Heck, Stanford
“There’s honestly just so much unknown about the week. Every day you just give your all and hope to go on to the next day.”
That’s how Rachel Heck describes the U.S. Women’s Amateur as she heads into her third straight appearance, following one of the most historic semesters in college golf. But the Annika Award winner had to go back to being Rachel from Memphis, Tenn., in order to confidently approach the week ahead. “I absolutely loved competing and playing with my team at Stanford, but honestly, at the end of that, I was so exhausted,” Heck says. “All I wanted to do was come back home and hang out with my dog, my sisters, go fishing and see my family and my boyfriend.”
Other than three professional events—the U.S. Women’s Open, the LPGA Mediheal Championship and the Marathon LPGA Classic—that’s exactly what her summer has looked like.
Sure, she continued to practice as she normally would, but chilling out, not burning out, was Heck’s goal.
“I always bring my (fishing) rods to the course with me, so as soon as I get done playing, I head back to where the lakes are and I just fish with my dog,” Heck says, beaming. “It is so peaceful, I love it.”
Even the very best need balance.
Heck didn’t advance to match play at her first U.S. Women’s Amateur, in 2019, but she applied the lessons learned and became the stroke-play medalist in 2020 before losing in the round of 16 to future Stanford teammate and defending champion Rose Zhang. Months later, as a freshman, Heck had a spring semester for the ages: six wins, a 69.72 scoring average, NCAA individual champion.
Well-rounded pursuits keep her going. Heck participates in ROTC (with aspirations to serve in the Air Force while playing on the LPGA Tour), runs an Instagram art account (debuted this summer in light of NIL), and is a valued member of her community back home in Memphis. Art is her newest revealed passion. Heck has posted a variety of pieces, including painted golf balls. She accepts commissions but is exploring using her art to support various charities.
“As simple as it sounds, I just draw and paint things that make me happy,” Heck says. “I went to our local park the other day, my dog was playing in the water and I just sat on the side of the water and kind of sketched her.”
Heck has found a way to merge her myriad interests into a person she cherishes. “I used to say I’m two different people,” she says of her competing roles as a ruthless competitor and pillar of the community. “And I think that ended up causing just a lot of stress in my life, feeling like I had to be one person here and one person somewhere else.”
“But in the past year, I’ve found a lot of joy in feeling like I can be myself. Like truly just Rachel, wherever I am. It’s the same Rachel on the golf course, same Rachel in ROTC, same Rachel painting. And I found a lot of joy in that.”
Her father, Robert, will be on the bag at the Amateur. He has been caddying for her since she was 5, and Rachel’s introduction to golf traces to Dad’s ice cream bribes among her and her siblings. “In my first tournaments,” she says, “I would walk down the fairway holding his hand and we’d go get ice cream, so to kind of have it come full circle and have caddied in majors and U.S. Women’s Amateurs is really cool.”
Is there an ice cream date booked for Westchester?
“We better!” Heck says with a laugh. “I always ask him if we can get ice cream. He seems to think it’s a joke now, but it is not.”
Make that mint chocolate chip, please.