Top Illini of Title IX: No. 5 — Renee Heiken Slone

Editor’s note: June 23 marks the 40-year anniversary of the passing of Title IX, a resolution that sought to stop gender discrimination in educational activities; athletics was one of those programs most affected. In honor of the 40-year anniversary, The Daily Illini is recognizing the athletes that have forwarded female athletics in the wake of Title IX’s passing. The Daily Illini summer staff sat down and sifted through a list of more than 30 nominees to name and order the top 9 female athletes of the past 40 years in terms of cultivating excellence for women’s sports at Illinois. Check out next week’s issue for Nos. 3-1.

Like clockwork, Renee Heiken arrived at the golf course with about an hour and 20 minutes to prepare before every match. She would warm up on the range, first with the 7-iron, then the 5-iron, 3-iron, 3-wood, driver, pitching wedge and then back to the 7-iron to finish. Next it was on to the putting green, where she would chip and putt. Finally, she returned to the clubhouse where she would sit off to the side, taking a few moments of solitude to get physically and mentally prepared for the match at hand.

“Discipline, structure and work-ethic, she had what it took to succeed,” John Heiken said of his daughter, who eventually married and took on Slone as her last name.

The hard-working attitude was there from when her father taught her to golf at the age of seven as a family-friendly activity. It didn’t take him and his wife Ronda Heiken long to realize she was talented and they supported her. Ronda took her to tournaments and John golfed with her every day.

It took Slone only five years of playing to make the decision for herself: She wanted to devote her life to golf.

She cruised her way through the junior tournaments, and it wasn’t a question that she’d play in high school. There was no women’s team at Metamora High School in Metamora, Ill., so she played on the men’s team instead, in the No. 1 slot nearly every time. It was 1986, she was good enough and because of Title IX, there was no question of whether she could play with the men. Playing the longer yardage helped her short and long play.

“It turned out being beneficial for me and for them,” Slone said.

Four women went out for the team her senior year of high school. Enough for a women’s team, which helped her prepare for college, where she’d have to do it on a daily basis. The No. 3 junior golfer in the country, Slone had her pick of schools. She chose Illinois because it was close to home and she had the opportunity to make a difference there.

“I guess I had a lot of luck on my side in her coming here,” said Paula Smith, Slone’s coach at Illinois.

Slone lived up to her expectations in college thanks to her skills, but also largely because of her never-give-up attitude. No matter the time, the temperature or the winds, Slone kept going. During the Big Ten Championships in 1991, the winds were so strong she could barely walk, let alone golf, yet she kept steady and ended up with the individual title.

“Everyone was in fear and awe of her. We knew her name and her achievements,” said Jennifer Mieras-Carfine, who golfed against Slone at Michigan State and with her on the professional level. “She was the one to beat. However, Renee never carried herself that way, she proved herself on the golf course.”

Her consistency always showed, especially in her senior season of 1993, when she averaged a school record 74.33 strokes per round, had a school record eight medalist titles and was named the National College Player of the Year by both the National Golf Coaches Association and Golfweek Magazine.

“That was really important to me because it was based on performance throughout the year, not just one win,” Slone said.

Slone never had quite what it took to win at the top level despite her consistency.

She finished in the top six during all three of her NCAA appearances — she started college during the spring semester, so she used her four years of eligibility in three and a half  — but she never claimed the individual NCAA title she was hoping for. The huge wins never came on the professional level either. She never won a major tournament, though in her first full year of the Futures Tour in 1998, she finished second on the money list.

“That was what showed I did consistently well,” Slone said.

She usually made par and rarely birdied, which Slone said is what it took to win the big tournaments.

She had the moments of greatness, the ability to turn everything around.

“I remember Renee had the best mental game I’ve ever seen,” said Valerie Zimmerman-Kantzler, Slone’s teammate at Illinois. “She would have bad holes and then slap herself in the leg, say some choice words and then go birdie, birdie, birdie.”

Slone tied the LGPA tournament scoring record of 28 at the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic in Toledo during her 1995-97 stint on the LGPA tour.

“I remember every shot from those nine holes,” Slone said. “I was completely engrossed in what I was doing and in the zone. When it was done, it was like I almost woke up from a dreamlike state.”

Slone met her husband Rick in 1999 during her professional career, when he was the golf director at a futures tour event. They hit it off and were married in November of 2001.

It was around then when she grew tired of packing and traveling all the time and switched over to coaching, taking an assistant coaching job at Bradley University in 2000. She went back to Illinois in 2001 and completed her last semester of education that held her back from a college degree in marketing. After some time serving as a golf professional, she took over for Smith as head coach at Illinois in 2006.

“She found something that pacified her desire to compete,” Rick said.

She doesn’t have the time to golf anymore, she can’t practice every morning, she is no longer devoted to being the best possible golfer. Her competitive spirit comes flaring back when she golfs and isn’t as good as the glory days. She tries not to think of how much lower the old scores are.

Her records are in the past, though she still fills most of Illinois’ record book  — she’s the career-stroke average leader and has the top two single-season stroke averages in school history  — she’s waiting for that to fade away.

“Records are meant to be broken,” Slone said. “The time will come and I’m looking forward to that, to coach that golfer.”