One of the Greats

I sat down with Aussie golfing great Rachel Hetherington near her home on the Gold Coast last weekend, chatting about her amazing career, how she coped with the pressure, looked after her mental health and what it was like playing on the toughest professional golfing circuit in the world. It was one of the most insightful and enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done in a long career in sports journalism.

Rachel Hetherington’s formula for coping with the white hot intensity of playing professional golf successfully at the highest level was relatively simple. At least the way she dealt with that pressure was. Can you imagine playing against the best women golfers in the world on the biggest stage of all, the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association), the USA tour? 

Your playing reputation and livelihood is at stake every time you walk out onto the fairway, watched not only by packed live galleries, but by millions of viewers around the world critiquing your every move. For us mere sporting mortals, it would be enough to terrify you, but that’s what sets the top pros in any sport apart from the rest, their ability to not only cope with that enormous pressure, but thrive, succeed and be excited by it. Rachel certainly managed to conquer any self doubts, becoming one of Australia’s finest ever women golfers, and said she rarely felt pressure in a negative way.

Pressure was something she used mostly in a positive way as she explained. “It comes back down to your practice and preparation. I think the only time you get nervous in a bad way is when you are unsure of your practice or your preparation and that’s your weakness.”

"I worked really hard on my game and felt like there wasn’t a shot I may need to play that I wasn’t prepared for."

During an illustrious professional career which began in 1994 playing on the European women’s circuit, Rachel qualified for the Ladies Professional Golf Association (The USA tour) in 1997.

She won three European titles, eight LPGA crowns and in 2000 combined with her great rival and friend Karrie Webb to win the inaugural Women’s World Cup of Golf for Australia at Kuala Lumpur.

Among her European Tour wins was the Evian Masters in France which is now one of the Majors. That remains her favourite win and said they were treated like royalty in a beautiful part of France.

In her first year out of qualifying school on the toughest women’s tour of all, the LPGA, Rachel showed her class by making 25 cuts out of the 28 tournaments she contested. In 2003 she won back to back LPGA titles and three times beat one of the greatest women golfers of all time, Annika Sorenstam in play-offs to win titles.
 
Her first LPGA title came in 1998 when she took out the First Union Betsy King Classic ,sinking a birdie putt to beat Sorenstam. She came agonisingly close to winning the Australian Open, being runner-up on three occasions after some epic battles.
World Cup Champions | Photo Courier Mail

Born at Port Macquarie in New South Wales, Rachel was a late starter to golf, taking up the sport as a 14 year-old and played most of her junior golf at Ipswich after her family moved to Queensland and her talent was soon evident. She won the New South Wales junior title four times from 1989-92 and also took out the New South Wales and Tasmanina Amateur Open titles.

Being a late starter, once she began playing golf that was all Rachel wanted to do, although she didn’t really know if she was good enough to one day play professionally. One thing she had was a strong work ethic and that is certainly a pre requisite to wanting to play professional golf.

“Whatever I did I always wanted to do it as good as I could. Having that success in the amateur game was certainly a driver (to want to turn pro). I was always very determined and we played a lot of match play in those days. I really enjoyed that competitive format.”

Rachel said that turning professional was almost out of necessity because there wasn’t any further pathway in amateur golf and demands put forward by the amateur golf administrators was a light bulb moment in her deciding to turning pro.“Amateur golf at that time was really restrictive. The amateur body wanted to determine what you did where you played who coached you. I loved my coach. He completely believed in me, but the amateur body wanted me to change my golf coach and so that’s when my determined spirit kicked in. I thought no, I love my coach, I completely trust him (Ian Triggs).

Ian Triggs ended up coaching Rachel for 18 years and she said it’s an extremely important part of being a successful player, trusting your coach. She believed in how he was teaching her and improving her golf and said they also know you emotionally and how to get the best out of you.

“Amateur golf at that time was really restrictive. The amateur body wanted to determine what you did where you played who coached you. I loved my coach. He completely believed in me, but the amateur body wanted me to change my golf coach and so that’s when my determined spirit kicked in. I thought no, I love my coach, I completely trust him (Ian Triggs)".

Happy Days | Photo: where2golf.com

Rachel played successfully on the tough European tour before qualifying for the LPGA in 1997. She enjoyed her three years on that tour and said playing in different countries each week, different languages, in different conditions on different courses was always interesting and the fact there weren’t so many choices for accommodation and restaurants, meant everybody tended to travel a lot more closely together.

Rachel realised very quickly that the LPGA league was definitely more competitive. There was a lot more at stake and conditions and courses were more consistent.

The players weren’t in close situations off the course as much as in Europe, but although very competitive, the women got on well and were intent on upholding a long tradition of goodwill from when the LPGA was set up in 1950.

It is one of the longest-running women’s professional sports associations in the world. The mantra was for each player in the LPGA to leave it in a better place than when they came into it and that included the way they inter-acted with fans, sponsors and each other.

Rachel still has the receipt for her first pay cheque in America for the $1400 she won making the cut in the Disney tournament in Orlando and said making that cut and the pay cheque was a big boost for her confidence.

Winning her first LPGA title in 1998, in a white hot pressure situation, beating Sorenstam in the first extra hole plays-off, was a big thrill.

Her build-up to that First Union Betsy King Classic was ideal as she and some other players in the Callaway staff, sponsored by Callaway, were involved in a three day short game practice and coaching camp which she said significantly improved her short game.

“I played well in that tournament. We came to the 72nd hole and we were tied. I probably hadn’t been as nervous as I was before that play-off hole against Annika. I had a lot of respect for Annika but I also knew that if I played my best I could beat her.

“On that play-off hole it was the 18th hole again. I hit my tee shot and it finished right next to the divot I hit on the 72nd hole. So when I was there I thought, wow, I’ve been here before, I know how to get this shot up and I hit it onto the green and made two putts for a birdie on the par five.”

"If you prepare and practice to the best standard you can there is really no reason to be nervous (badly). The nerves are an excitement, they are a good thing because you are there in that position and that’s what you’ve been practicing for."

Of course being a professional golfer you obviously need nerves of steel. Rachel had her own way of coping with pressure which in most situations was intense. Aside from the gallery of on course spectators, millions were viewing the action around the globe on television.

 “If you prepare and practice to the best standard you can there is really no reason to be nervous (badly). The nerves are an excitement, they are a good thing because you are there in that position and that’s what you’ve been practicing for. When you are focusing on that alone and knowing you’ve done the work and you’ve got the shots to play, there’s really no need to be nervous in a negative way.”

Mental Health issues with elite athletes have come under the spotlight in recent years with numerous high profile sports men and women speaking out about that pressure and some have withdrawn from playing to look after themselves. While those playing on tour got on really well, Rachel said there were times when it could be quite lonely to the point where after playing an outstanding round and winning a tournament, instead of going out and celebrating like she wanted to, she was sitting back in her hotel room alone eating pizza. Everyone else were leaving for the next tournament or organising to do so.
 

For golfers, as much as we see the success, the trophies held up by the winners, that’s usually the culmination of 10-15 years practice and playing. That’s the glamorous part but there’s the down side as well, as Rachel explained.

“There’s a lot of time outside of winning that things don’t go the way that you want them to and in golf, invariably you’ll hit more bad shots than good and that’s why it is such a mental game. It’s important to be able to seperate as an athlete what you do from who you are. There’s a saying in golf, Don’t let your score become you”

 “If you are a pro golfer used to hitting scores in the 60s and early 70s and all of the sudden you can get a bad patch when you’re shooting a 75, not making the cut, not making any money, your sponsors are questioning whether you are going to have a contract next year. All of the sudden you can be that bad score and you feel like that bad score.”
Unfortunately too many coaches around the world in most sporting codes are focussed far too heavily on just their athletes success and this adds to the pressure, Rachel believes.
 

“It’s important that the support crew, the trainers as that athlete develops, to help them understand that there is more to them than just what they do. It’s about the skills and the attributes they are creating while learning before they succeed that are really really important to grow as well.

“In sport unfortunately a lot of coaches, it’s all about success because it makes coaches look better. There are very few coaches that are willing to make sure that the entire athlete is the success, just not the actions of the athlete. It’s the entire ‘who they are’ as well as what they do is successful is most important.”
 

Rachel had doubts near the end of her career about if she needed to do things differently when going through a form slump. “There were times I wasn’t performing as well as I wanted to and times when it was a real struggle not to become my score. It’s also very difficult because sport is all you know. You live in a fish bowl and it’s really scary to step away from your sport and all that you know and do something really different or be able to look outside the bubble.”

It’s important, Rachel said, “To step outside the bubble, take a helicopter view of your situation and mentally be able to go, ok, let’s have a look from the helicopter view, a realistic look and make sure my results are not defining who I am.”
FAMILY TIME: Rachel, husband Greg and daughter Annie on the golf course

Rachel stepped away from professional golf in 2010, realising while recovering from a skateboard accident, that she did not miss playing and did not want to put in the huge commitment it takes to be a top golfer any more.

She rarely plays now with her husband, former Australian test cricket batsman Greg Ritchie the golfer in their family. The couple have a 10 year-old daughter Annie

Rachel is now pursuing a career in law, working towards graduating as a solicitor and is also keen to develop her open water swimming skills and surfing.

The humble, personable Aussie can look back with extreme pride on a golfing career that at one stage had her among the best in the world.

Interview & Words by John Alexander | Header Image taken by Tony Stretch. Supporting Images sourced by Absolutely Famous.

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