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 of humor.
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� 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 sideshow."
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 over-compensate 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."