National Golf Invitational: Relaxed Jacksonville State freshman earns postseason win

It had been a long day in the desert and Jinger Heath probably had more golf to play. Heath was hitting some putts, in case a playoff was on the horizon for the individual trophy at the National Golf Invitational. His Jacksonville State teammates suggested he sit in the shade.

Heath, the freshman from Hartselle, Alabama, famous for needing little (if any) time to warm up, suggested they instead worry about head coach Robbie Fields. Normally, he just hits a few drives on the course before going to the first tee, but “this one I didn’t want Robbie to be scared of me,” Heath joked.

“So I made sure to warm up for an hour.”

Hence his decision to hit a few putts while waiting for his pursuers.

Scores: National Golf Invitation | 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 par. When he walked off the golf course Sunday afternoon, North Carolina-Wilmington’s Victoria Levy and Santa Clara’s Kelsey Kim still had two or three holes left, and both were also around 3 under par.

Levy, a UNCW transfer from Central Florida, had been par through 13 holes before making three birdies and a bogey on her final hole. Her final round 70 left her tied with Heath.

“After the round, Robbie said, ‘Okay, Jinger, if you’re going into a tiebreaker, you need to be prepared,’” Heath said. “I’m like, I’m ready. What have I been doing all semester? He said you should stay relaxed. I said I made 71 shots today, I think I’m loose enough.”

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

Coach and player walked together to the 18th hole, the first playoff hole, where Heath took honors off the tee. Heath targeted a particular bunker in the back, just as he had done all week, and took to the fairway. His second shot landed two feet short of the green and he lined up the birdie putt on the left edge.

“Every putt I make, I tell myself to make it,” she said. “So I thought, just do it.”

Amazingly, he hung on the rim before suffering “a fall” on the hole and giving Heath an individual postseason title in his first year of college golf. And in his opinion, there is no better way to win a tournament than with a birdie in the playoffs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for Fields, he walked, perhaps not so slowly, alongside Heath for much of the day. She had to take a break after seven holes to lower her own stress levels, but picked up Heath again on the 13th hole and walked the rest of the way with her.

Fields spent three seasons as a women’s golf assistant at East Carolina University before taking the job at Jacksonville State in the summer of 2022. Both he and Heath attended Hartselle (Ala.) High School, and Heath had been playing at the Same club when I was a kid. where Fields’ father plays. Therefore, Fields had an early scouting report on Heath.

Fields knew there wouldn’t be a place for her at ECU, so he offered to help her get where she wanted to go. The summer before his senior year, Fields ended up watching Heath play in a tournament at Pinehurst because he was right in the middle of two players he was recruiting. At the time, she had applied for the position at Jacksonville State. She didn’t have any interviews, but rumors were already spreading.

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

Fields was hired soon after and Heath became his first commitment. He has been excellent, racking up Conference USA Freshman of the Year honors and now an NGI title.

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

Heath led his Jacksonville State team to a seventh-place finish in the 10-team NGI field. Atop the team standings, Rutgers increased its one-stroke lead in the second round to a three-stroke victory over UNCW. Rutgers, which finished the tournament up 13 points, 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 off a strong spring than with a postseason victory. Even better, she watched three freshmen fearlessly take over from three seniors who played their final round in the R block.

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

The story originally appeared on GolfWeek