Heather Graff (now Zakhar) had come close in major golf events, but wasn’t able to break through until the 1996 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship at the Spencer T. Olin Community Golf Course in Alton, Ill., when the rising University of Arizona junior defeated Lauri Berles, 5 and 4, in the 18-hole final. Graff was the WAPL medalist the following year and again defeated Berles, this time in the second round, before losing in the third round. Graff, who helped Arizona to the 1996 NCAA championship, turned professional after graduating in 1998 and spent one season on the LPGA Tour (2001) before settling down with her husband, Brian, in the Orange County, Calif., town of Trabuco Canyon. They now have two children, who are ages 11 and 8. Graff’s father, Brad, was a golf professional who taught her the game, and when he bought a public course in Kennewick, Wash. (Canyon Lakes), during Heather’s freshman year of high school, her game blossomed.
What do you remember about that week in Illinois?
There are a lot of memories. The fondest was I had a lot of family there. My cousin (Matt Van Sistine) caddied for me. I just remember in the final match, I was so focused that when it was over, he told me, ‘We’re not going to the next hole. We’re done.’ It didn’t dawn on me that I had won. I was ready to tee off on the next hole.
I understand you ate the same thing each day for lunch. Were you superstitious?
I was very superstitious. They served me my favorite grilled cheese and pickle sandwich and they made a very good one. I think by the end of the week, they knew who I was. It was a good sandwich.
Do you remember much from the final, when you hit 13 of 14 greens?
I remember hitting a lot of good shots. My dad and I made some tweaks to my swing and it just clicked that week, especially with my short irons.
It sounds like your dad was a big influence in your development.
I was daddy’s girl. I went to work with him when he would open up at 6 o’clock in the morning when I was 8, 10 years old. We moved to [Kennewick,] Washington when I was a freshman in high school and I could play most of the year. We lived on the [southeast] side of the state where it didn’t snow that much.
What did winning the WAPL do for your golf game?
It really gave me some confidence. I had an opportunity to go to Japan and play in a Japan/USA match. It made me realize I can do it. I still look at pictures and it was amazing. It’s amazing to be a USGA champion.
Do you still keep in touch with players from that WAPL?
Jody Niemann, who I believe won it in 1999. I beat her in the semifinals [in 1996]. And [1998 champion] Amy Spooner. We traveled a lot on the Futures Tour. Jody and Amy are just great. Those are some of the best years of my life.
Why did you retire from professional golf?
I didn’t get my [LPGA Tour] card back [after the 2001 season] and I didn’t want to go back to the Futures Tour, even though that’s how I got my LPGA card. The travel was really hard. It got to a point where I wanted to start a family. The travel took its effect and it was time to settle down.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.