Three weeks ago Rachel Hetherington was a nobody, albeit one
with a textbook golf swing and a cute accent. On the rare
occasions when anyone in the press took notice of her, it was
usually to ask, "So what's Karrie Webb really like?"
Hetherington's anonymity was not confined to the United States.
In her native Australia she had been eclipsed to such a degree
by Webb, her lifelong rival, that Rachel's kid sister, Kylie,
used to ring up the Australia papers to harangue the editors
about their coverage, or lack thereof. Says Kylie, "I would
shout into the phone, 'My sister very nearly won an extremely
important golf tournament in Europe. How come you couldn't be
bothered to put it in your paper?'"
The calls have stopped, because times have changed. After years
of toil Hetherington is an overnight sensation. Going into last
week's Titleholders, in Daytona Beach, Hetherington had won two
LPGA tournaments in a row, including the previous week's
rain-shortened Chick-fil-A Charity Championship, in which she
had stared down Webb, one of her playing partners, during a taut
final round. Suddenly Hetherington, 27, was the toast of two
continents. In America she was suddenly being talked about as
another of the game's great young players. The folks in
Australia, meanwhile, had made up for their previous
indifference with undisguised ardor. "We've fallen in love with
her not just for who she is," one Aussie newspaperman said last
week, "but for who she isn't." That would be Webb, who, for all
her otherworldly talents, seems to have only two moods: surly
and sulky. Hetherington, meanwhile, is a sweetheart, always
quick with a smile or a flash of her pleasantly sarcastic sense
After opening the Titleholders with a flawless five-under 67 to
take her customary spot atop the leader board, Hetherington
finally succumbed to the whirlwind of the previous weeks. She
was run down over the final three rounds, so worn out in fact
that during a lightning delay on Sunday she took an hourlong nap
on a couch in the middle of a kinetic hospitality tent. With
closing rounds of 74-68-75 Hetherington faded to 44th place, but
she still should get some credit for a victory. "I knew I had to
get my butt in gear if I was going to keep up with her," Webb
said on Monday morning, after she put an end to a week's worth
of weather delays by birdieing three of the seven holes she
still had to play for a final-round 66 and a three-stroke
victory over Annika Sorenstam. Webb's victory was her fourth of
the year, meaning Aussies have won six of the year's 13 LPGA
tournaments. "Rachel's success isn't really a surprise," Webb
says. "She's always been a great player."
Webb is one of the few who know. In Australia, high school and
college golf is a foreign concept; the big-time amateur events
are played at the state level, and from 1989 to '92 Hetherington
won four straight New South Wales junior titles, breaking Jan
Stephenson's record of three in a row. Webb, 2 1/2 years
younger, was an emerging force, but in the blunt assessment of
the Sydney Morning Herald, "Rachel Hetherington was the main
game in Australian women's amateur golf and Karrie Webb a mere
May 16, 1999
That was all forgotten when both turned pro in 1994 and joined
the Women Professional Golfers' European Tour, Hetherington in
the spring and Webb in the fall. In her first two seasons
Hetherington won a trio of small events, but Webb stole the
headlines by taking the 1995 British Open, which propelled her
to the rookie of the year award. In 1996 Webb lit out for the
States, where she won four times and became the first LPGA or
PGA Tour rookie to win $1 million. Hetherington went winless in
Europe. In 1997 she joined the LPGA tour but finished a middling
53rd on the money list, while Webb won three more times.
"I think Karrie's success began holding Rachel back," says Ian
Triggs, Hetherington's coach and one of the deans of Australian
golf. "When she wasn't getting the same kind of results, the
internal pressure began to build."
The major difference between Webb and Hetherington lay in their
short games. "She had one, and I didn't," says Hetherington, who
since her teenage years has been known as Radar Rach because of
her accuracy with the driver and, especially, the irons.
Beginning in 1996 Hetherington began working slavishly to
improve her play on and around the greens, laboring to come up
with a more diverse repertoire of shots and to overcome her
lifelong habit of taking the putter back too far and too low to
the ground, which forced her hands to overcompensate and made
her putting maddeningly inconsistent. Triggs's favorite drill
was to have his pupil practice with one end of a string attached
to the tip of her putter grip and the other end tied around her
neck, forcing a more rounded arc.
All the work began to pay dividends last September at the Betsy
King Classic. Hetherington birdied the final four holes there to
force a playoff with Sorenstam, who was 4-0 in sudden death.
Hetherington won on the first extra hole, nearly holing out from
the fairway for an eagle before tapping in the winning birdie
putt. A rib injury limited her effectiveness the rest of the
season, and she finished 38th on the money list.
This year Hetherington has put everything together, spurred by a
trip to the Dave Pelz Short Game School in March. Two weeks
later, at the Chick-fil-A, Hetherington birdied two of the last
three holes to force a playoff with Lori Kane. "When Rachel
birdied 16, I told my caddie that we needed to get ready to head
back to 18 for a playoff," says Kane. "I knew this kid was
tough, and she wasn't going to back down." Hetherington got
up-and-down for birdie on the par-5 18th for the victory. Two
weeks ago, at the City of Hope Myrtle Beach Classic, she opened
with a 69 and, after rain washed away play on Friday and
Saturday, went out on Sunday and shot a 68 for a one-shot
victory over three players. What made the win so sweet was that
it came at the expense of Webb, who could have forced a
melodramatic playoff had she made a 15-foot birdie putt at the
last. "I always dreamed that one day it would happen like this,"
Hetherington said afterward.
Though she is cultivating a reputation as one of the finest iron
players in women's golf, Hetherington's greatest asset is her
seeming immunity to pressure. "I was raised to be tough," she
says, which is one way of putting it. Hetherington's father,
Ron, pushed her so hard as a teenager that eventually she pushed
him back--right out of her life. Hetherington hasn't spoken with
her dad in more than two years, even though both live in
Brisbane. (Hetherington and her husband, Dean Teske, whom she
began dating when she was 16, also rent an apartment in
Lakeland, Fla.) "It's tragic, really," says Teske, who caddies
for promising LPGA rookie A.J. Eathorne. "There were times when
he was an absolute tyrant and out of control, but it was his
belief in her talent and his dedication to her development that
in many ways is the reason for her being here."
Hetherington is polite but firm in her desire to keep her family
life private, but that may become difficult. "Rachel will have
to get used to the attention," says Webb, sounding happy to have
some company. "She's going to be around for a long time."
Hetherington's father pushed her so hard as a teenager that
eventually she pushed him back--right out of her life.