Rutgers, Jacksonville State’s Jinger Heath win

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It had been a long day in the desert, and Jinger Heath probably had more golf to play. Heath was hitting a few putts, in case a playoff was on the horizon for the individual trophy at the National Golf Invitational. Her Jacksonville State teammates suggested she have a seat in the shade instead.

Heath, the freshman from Hartselle, Alabama, who is famous for needing little (if any) time to warm up, suggested they worry about head coach Robbie Fields instead. Normally she only hits a few drives on the range before going to the first tee, but, “at this one I didn’t want Robbie to freak out on me,” Heath joked.

“So I made sure to get an hour in of warming up.”

Hence her decision to roll a few putts while she waited for her chasers.

ScoresNational Golf Invitational | Photos

Heath posted rounds of 70-72-71 at the National Golf Invitational at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes in Maricopa, Arizona, to reach 3 under. When she came off the golf course Sunday afternoon, Victoria Levy from North Carolina-Wilmington and Kelsey Kim from Santa Clara still had two or three holes to left, and both were hovering around 3 under, too.

Levy, a UNCW who transferred from Central Florida, had been even par through 13 holes before making three birdies and a bogey in her closing hole. Her final-round of 70 left her tied with Heath.

“After the round, Robbie was like, ‘OK, Jinger, if you’re going into a playoff, you need to be prepared,’” Heath said. “I’m like, I am prepared. What have I been doing all semester? He said you need to stay loose. I said I’ve hit 71 shots today, I think I’m loose enough.”

As Fields joked, “I think her lack of stress stressed me out more.”

Coach and player strode to the No. 18 together, the first playoff hole, where Heath drew honors off the tee. Heath aimed for a particular bunker in the background, just like she had all week, and hit the fairway. Her second shot landed a couple feet off the green and she lined up the birdie putt at the left edge.

“Every putt I get over, I tell myself to make it,” she said. “So I was like, make it.”

Remarkably, it hung on the edge before taking “one tumble” into the hole and giving Heath a postseason individual title in her first year of college golf. And in her mind, there’s no better way to win a tournament than with a playoff birdie.

Jacksonville State’s Jinger Heath won the NGI individual title. (Photo by Landon Ringler)

Heath proudly noted that she won the first tournament of her spring season, the North Carolina-Greensboro-hosted Advance Golf Partners Collegiate, and now the last. It’s just some of the middle that didn’t sit so well.

“I definitely didn’t play to my potential,” she said. “I wasn’t very happy.”

Heath had two other top-7 finishes in the spring, but at the Conference USA Championship, she felt like she put two good rounds together before struggling to finish it off. She finished 12th.

An NGI title will make the start of the summer much sweeter, and Heath will go on to play a full schedule of Alabama Golf Association events, a U.S. Women’s Amateur qualifier, the Tennessee Women’s Open and maybe even a few more amateur events.

Heath knows she couldn’t have a better team around her, notably Fields and swing coach Colby Odom, who teaches out of Burningtree Country Club in Decatur, Alabama. When she called Odom before the playoff at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes, he told her, “You’re ready, you just need to walk slow.”

As for Fields, he was walking, maybe not so slowly, right beside Heath for much of the day. He had to take a break after seven holes to bring his own stress levels down, but picked up Heath again on No. 13 and walked the rest of the way with her.

Fields spent three seasons as the women’s golf assistant at East Carolina University before taking over at Jacksonville State in the summer of 2022. He and Heath both attended Hartselle (Alabama) High School, and Heath had been playing out of the same club as a kid where Fields’ dad plays. Thus, Fields had an early scouting report on Heath.

Fields knew he wouldn’t have a spot for her at ECU, so he offered instead to help her get wherever she wanted to go. The summer before her senior year, Fields ended up watching Heath play a tournament at Pinehurst because she was right in the middle of two players he was recruiting. By that time, he had applied for the job at Jacksonville State. He had no interview, but rumors were already swirling.

“She spent about an hour after the round recruiting me,” he said. “She hadn’t committed yet, but she was recruiting hard.”

Fields was hired shortly after and Heath became his first commitment. She’s been a great one, racking up Conference USA Freshman of the Year honors and now an NGI title.

“Seeing her grow up from a little rugrat on the golf course being in everybody’s way to doing something like this and being there with her has been a little extra sentimental, I guess, for some of those reasons,” Fields said.

Heath led her Jacksonville State team to a seventh-place finish in the 10-team NGI field. At the top of the team leaderboard, Rutgers increased its one-shot second-round lead to a three-shot victory over UNCW. Rutgers, which finished the tournament at 13 over, became the second consecutive Big 10 team to win the NGI after Penn State won the inaugural tournament in 2023.

Rutgers head coach Kari Williams couldn’t think of a better way to cap a solid spring than with a postseason victory. Even better, she watched three freshmen fearlessly take the baton from three seniors who have played their last round in the block R.

“Only a couple of teams get to do that all year, get to finish with a win,” Williams said. “It’s really good for us.”

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