Heller, Turlock High grad, can’t wait for U.S. Women’s Open

Former Turlock High and Sonoma State University golfer Spencer Heller during her playing days at Sonoma.
Former Turlock High and Sonoma State University golfer Spencer Heller during her playing days at Sonoma.

Spencer Heller’s week at the 71st U.S. Women’s Open already has gained momentum, and she hasn’t yet struck an official shot.

That won’t happen until Thursday at 9:12 a.m. when they announce the 2009 Turlock High School graduate’s name on the first tee. Heller anticipates some anxiety coupled with another feeling that trumps everything else – excitement.

“It’ll be so cool that I’m kind of the home team,” said Heller, who will have family and friends pulling for her at CordeValle, the scenic Open venue in San Martin, 30 minutes south of San Jose and only about 80 miles from Turlock. “A lot of people have been so supportive.”

Heller, 25, is a young pro trying to gain traction in a hyper-competitive game. The four-time NCAA Division II All-American at Sonoma State wants to make it on the LPGA Tour, which means she’s soaking in this week’s experience.

A practice round Tuesday with veteran pro Brittany Lang, a four-time Solheim Cup qualifier, unlocked a treasure trove of information.

“Brittany said the Solheim Cup matches were the highlight of her career, and that is an honor to be here and to remember that,” Heller said. “She also said you can be married out here and make it, that you can make it work.”

Those words resonated with Heller. She and Steven Warne, also a former Sonoma State golfer, plan a wedding in September. Single or married, Heller’s goals are unchanged.

2 USGA-sanctioned championships Spencer Heller has qualified for

That Heller qualified for the Open, her second USGA event, was both an accomplishment and a relief. She passed the test last month at section qualifying at Terravita Country Club in Scottsdale Ariz., earning one of two available berths with rounds of 73 and 71.

“I’ve tried to qualify for LPGA Tour tournaments on Monday this year and haven’t done well,” she said. “I was so happy when I qualified for the Open. It was a sense of relief and a feeling of, ‘Wow, I can really do this.’ 

Heller moved to Phoenix after her 2014 graduation from Sonoma State and competed on the Cactus Tour, a Southwest-based circuit for young pros. She’s enjoyed some success, including victories at events in Phoenix and Las Vegas. That said, her winning checks – $2,400 and $3,500 – reveal the mini-tour’s entry-level status. She tried the LPGA Q-School last year and missed advancing to the second stage by one painful shot.

Heller struggled with her putting, in fact, until she met putting instructor Craig Renshaw this year. Lag putting, a critical skill at any Open course, has been the focus.

“My ball-striking has been pretty good. I’m working on my speed on the greens, and that cleaned up my putting stroke,” she said. “My lag putting needs to be on-point. It was inconsistent until I started to see Craig.”

She’s also learning to pace herself. An occasional day of rest has proven helpful for Heller, whose natural tendency is to practice or train hard daily. Her approach this week has been measured – nine holes a day along with practice. She and Warne got familiar with CordeValle via a few practice rounds before the USGA arrived in force.

It’ll be so cool that I’m kind of the home team. A lot of people have been so supportive

Spencer Heller

Heller is paired with veteran American pro Christine Song and South Korean amateur Haeran Ryu. On Friday, they’ll be the last threesome to tee off (2:47 p.m. off No. 10).

“At least I won’t be waiting around wondering if I made the cut. That was no fun last year at Q-School,” Heller said.

Making the cut and a top-50 finish are Heller’s targets this week. Then again, she’s already learned a few things as a young pro that she hopes to apply at the Open.

“I’ve found out that I want to play professional golf for as long as I can,” she said. “I’ve also learned about my swing and about scoring. This game is discouraging to a lot of people. I find enjoyment in practice and training to get better.”

Ron Agostini: 209-578-2302, @ModBeeSports