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Nichols: Stanford’s Rachel Heck wins NCAA championship, becomes third player to sweep the postseason. Here’s why she won’t turn pro.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Rachel Heck paused for a somber moment after she heard the name Victoria Pinckney on the first tee. On Friday, every player in field at the NCAA Championship played in memory of a fallen U.S. soldier. Air Force captain Pinckney, a 27-year-old mom, died in Kyrgyzstan while serving during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Heck walked over to the starter to write down Pinckney’s name before she left the tee box. The Stanford freshman held a 5-shot lead going into the final round, but at this moment, her mind was far away from what was on the line. Heck joined the ROTC program at Stanford and hopes to serve in the Air Force Reserve while competing on the LPGA.

It was a battle, but Heck went on to win the NCAA Championship by a shot over UCLA’s Emma Spitz. Heck shot a final round 74 to finish at 8 under. She’s the first Cardinal to win medalists honors at the NCAAs. The Memphis product also became only the third player in history to sweep the postseason by winning conference, regionals and nationals. Annie Park did the same at USC in 2013 as a freshman. Arizona’s Marisa Baena became the first in 1996, also as a freshman. Both Heck and Park pulled off the trifecta in their first semester in school.

The upbeat Heck, 19, arrived on campus Feb. 13 after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the fall semester and promptly won six times in nine starts.

Some might wonder, what’s left to prove?

When Park dominated the postseason eight years ago, it looked like she might take a bullet train to the LPGA, and no one would’ve blamed her. There are examples of great players who seemingly stayed too long in school and spun their wheels. Some even got worse.

There are far, far more players, however, who turned pro too early and sputtered at the next level, joining the where-are-they-now heap.

What should Heck do?

The smile says it all: She’s having the time of her life.

Before Heck teed off on Monday, she walked over to teammate Angelina Ye and wrapped her up in a bear hug. Ye was in second place and playing in the group ahead.

“I’ll be cheering from behind,” Heck told her.

NCAA Womens Golf: NCAA Women's Golf ChampionshipNCAA Womens Golf: NCAA Women's Golf Championship

NCAA Womens Golf: NCAA Women’s Golf Championship

Stanford golfer Rachel Heck tees off on the 11th hole during the NCAA Championship at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. Photo by Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

The team before self is genuine with Heck, who lives it out every day in ROTC training. It’s at her core, and it seems that no amount of success this semester can tempt her away from Stanford life.

Loyalty runs deep in her veins.

Heck is writing a story is bound to transcend sports media let alone golf. No woman has ever served in the military reserves while competing on the LPGA. Sponsors should line up to be a part of Heck’s story, to help spread a wholesome message of service, sacrifice and excellence.

It’s hard to quantify exactly how much Heck’s passion for ROTC has freed her up to play such remarkable golf. The quest to become the best player in the world is no longer all-consuming for her.

One thing is certain, it’s an important message for parents of young players everywhere.

Encourage the pursuit of other passions. Think long-term. Don’t pressure your kid.

The grind can wait. Do what makes you happy.