UA freshman Graff aiming for a national championship

By Curtis Acosta

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Heather Graff has been beating older competition since she was five, when she played in her first golf tournament. Her victim that time was an 8-year-old, who ended up crying after the disappointing loss. The little girl was making such a scene that Graff had to give her the bag of candy she received for winning the tournament.

These days, Graff is still making older players cry.

Graff has emerged as one of the finest players in women's golf this year. She has been Arizona's top golfer, leading the team with five top-10 tournament finishes. And she has done all of this in her first year of collegiate competition.

"I've never thought of myself as a freshman," Graff says. "In college you all have the same ability."

Growing up in Wisconsin, Graff wasn't always on the golf course. Her other interests took more of her time. It wasn't until she moved to Kennewick, Wash., when she began to dedicate herself solely to golf a decision she thinks helped her develop a deeper love for the game.

"I'm loving golf more than I've ever loved golf before," Graff says. "I want to be out there. I want to compete, whereas if I had played since I was 5 I'd be worn out and tired of it."

Graff is definitely not worn out. After a shaky beginning to the spring season, she has rebounded with two stellar performances, including her incredible run at the Pacific 10 Conference Championships in Corvallis, Ore., where she finished one stroke behind champion Wendy Ward of ASU with a 54-hole total of 212.

"Heather Graff is a very special player," UA coach Rick LaRose says.

An All-American candidate? Maybe, but LaRose has a different tag for her.

"I call her All-World," he says.

Although she comes from a family of great athletes her father is a golf pro and was also drafted by the Chicago White Sox success doesn't come naturally.

"I work hard at it," Graff says. "I think I have some natural abilities from my grandfather and my dad, but I work very hard."

The pressure of being a top golfer at such a young age, coupled with being away from home for the first time, is a difficult adjustment for any student athlete, but Graff has been able to keep things in perspective. She has her own special way of dealing with homesickness.

"The golf course is where I'm most happy," Graff says. "I try to stay there as much as I can. I call my mom all

the time, too."

LaRose is another source of inspriration and confidence for Graff. Since he was named coach of the women's team (he currently coaches the men's team also) to replace Kim Haddow, who left in December to become the University of Florida women's golf coach, LaRose has given Graff the support she has needed this spring.

"Coach LaRose has so much confidence in me, and I think that is going to help me in the future," Graff says. "I'll be on the putting green and he'll just come up to me and say, 'You make everything.' It's so nice to hear that. You can think that, but when people tell you that, it really sinks in your head."

Even with this confidence, Graff was surprised that her success came this easily. She finished sixth in the first tournament of her collegiate career, and followed that up with a few more top-10 finishes. Because of all this, it might be expected that Graff feels more pressure. She doesn't.

"The only pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself, and I put a lot on myself," Graff says. "I've always been hard on myself and I probably always will be."

One of Graff's good friends shares many of the same characteristics as she does. Stanford freshman Tiger Woods, 19, is the current U.S. Amateur National champion. Graff, 18, is threatening to win her own national championship. That is something Graff wants badly, and every time she looks at her coach's hand, she is reminded of this. (LaRose coached the UA men's team to the 1992 title.)

"Every single time I'm talking to him it seems like my eyes are glued to that (national championship) ring," Graff says. "I want one of those."

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