Korda, 18, Sees Herself in Heck, Field’s Youngest Player July 15, 2017 | BEDMINSTER, N.J. By Lisa D. Mickey

It was a battle all the way through, but Rachel Heck, the youngest player in the field, advanced to the weekend. (USGA/Chris Keane)

U.S. Women's Open Home

It wasn’t very long ago that Nelly Korda strolled the fairways of Long Island’s Sebonack Golf Club in her first U.S. Women’s Open Championship, eyes wide open to all the sights and sounds of the grandest stage in women’s golf.

She was 14 in 2013, following in the footsteps of not only her older sister Jessica, an LPGA Tour member, but also American players Morgan Pressel and Lexi Thompson, who qualified as mere 12-year-old amateurs.

Fast forwarding to this week’s 72nd championship, Korda, 18 – now a professional – probably saw a little bit of her younger self when she looked across the tee at fellow contestant Rachel Heck, 15, the youngest player in the field.

And knowing Korda’s history in the Women’s Open, Heck felt she was in good company as both competitors played their way into the weekend.

Korda finished the first 36 holes at 2-under-par 142 to move into a tie for 14th place, while Heck carded a two-day total of 2-over-par 146 to make the cut on the number in a tie for 52nd.

“She knew how I felt because she has been in the same situation,” said Heck, a high-school sophomore from Memphis, Tenn. “Nelly was so nice and supportive the whole time.”

Korda remembers feeling more excited than scared. And she was completely motivated by the experience, which she said sealed her desire to turn professional.

The lanky teen made the cut and tied for 64th in 2013 as an amateur, and again made the cut in her second start in 2016 – this time as a pro – improving to a tie for 59th.

“I loved every second of playing in that first Women’s Open and it was the turning point for me in golf,” said Korda, of Bradenton, Fla., whose father Petr Korda, the 1998 Australian Open tennis champion, was on her bag for that first foray, when she and Jessica became the seventh set of sisters to compete in the same Women’s Open. “That’s when I decided I really wanted to turn pro and play golf as a career.”

Nelly Korda made the cut as a 14-year-old amateur in the U.S. Women's Open in 2013. She's impressed with what she's seen from Heck thus far. (USGA/Chris Keane)

Korda won the Harder Hall Invitational in 2015 and was the runner-up in the Rolex Girls’ Junior Championship that year. She also qualified for the 2015 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, reaching match play.

But Korda’s heart was set on following her sister to the LPGA Tour. She spent 2016 competing on the Symetra Tour, where she recorded seven top-10 finishes that included one win. She earned full 2017 LPGA membership by finishing in the top 10 on the 2016 Symetra Tour’s money list.

As a 2017 LPGA rookie, Korda has two top-10 finishes, including a tie for fifth at the Pure Silk Bahamas.

But while Korda’s path was set early to play professionally, she knows that dreams start at this championship, and she understands the important role the U.S. Women’s Open plays in giving amateurs and professionals the chance to compete together.

Korda asked Heck about her plans to play college golf at Stanford University, where the 15-year-old has verbally committed. She also asked about her junior and amateur schedule. Heck countered with questions of her own for the teen pro.

“She’s got game and seems very mature,” said Korda of Heck. “Truthfully, everyone has to grow. I had to grow a lot, too, because the road to success has a lot of ups and downs.”

“I’m sure she will go through that, but she’s a great player and I’m excited to see what the future holds for her,” added Korda, whose father skipped this week’s Women’s Open to accompany her younger tennis-playing brother Sebastian to England for the Wimbledon Junior Championships.

Father caddies are common at the Women’s Open each year because the event always boasts a large number of amateurs, and Robert Heck is toting the clubs for his daughter Rachel.

The elder Heck called the family’s experience at the national championship “surreal.”

Rachel has a built-in gallery this week with her mom Stacy, older sister Abby – who will play college golf at the University of Notre Dame this fall – and younger sister Anna, a middle-school junior golfer.

“We’ve always dreamed of something like this, but we never dreamed it would come this soon,” said the father. “This has brought our whole family together.”

Robert Heck was especially complimentary of the professionals with whom his daughter has played this week, in practice rounds and in competition. From 2016 U.S. Women’s Open champion Brittany Lang, to LPGA Tour veterans Sandra Gal, Katherine Kirk and Marina Alex, to fellow competitors Emily Childs and Korda, he observed the pros’ supportive and welcoming nature.

“I didn’t know how much they would like having a high school kid hanging around, but I’ve been overwhelmed by how wonderful they all have been in trying to help Rachel feel comfortable this week,” he said.

Those pros also likely recognized Rachel’s talent and offered encouragement to the developing player.

This is Heck’s second USGA championship. She competed in the 2015 U.S. Girls’ Junior, but did not advance into match play.

“I got to learn from other girls,” said Heck of her inaugural trip to the Girls’ Junior.

That disappointment served as an important learning experience for Heck, the 2015 and 2016 Tennessee Junior Player of the Year.

Earlier this year, Heck won the 2017 Rolex Girls Junior Championship by one stroke with a 72-hole score of 10-under 278. She also blazed through the 2017 Tennessee Division II AA state tournament by a 15-shot margin.

As Heck carefully observed Korda during their two rounds together this week, she could also see herself as a professional some day.

“She’s a great role model for me and I definitely look up to her game,” said Heck, who will represent the United States in August at the Ping Junior Solheim Cup.

“She’s only three years older, so I look at her and think, ‘That could be me in a few years,’” she added.

And for Korda, Heck’s youthful enthusiasm is a reminder of how her own journey began at this championship.

“I’ve made my third cut, which feels good,” Korda said. “You just keep growing and improving out here and I hope I’ll keep playing some solid golf.”

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.

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