Date: February 19, 2015
Author: Martin Blake

Fire still burns for Rachel Hetherington at 42


Rachel Hetherington quit playing golf five years ago, had a child, bought a driving range and settled down with her husband, the former Test cricketer Greg Ritchie, in Tweed Heads.

She had spent nearly 20 years travelling and playing, first in Europe then for 14 years on the LPGA in America, and she was jaded, as well as hobbled with a broken ankle. She barely picked up a club in all that time away from the game.

Then in April last year, the golf-addicted Ritchie told her about a presentation he had witnessed at the Queensland Cricketers' Club at the Gabba. It was delivered by Randall Hollands-Smith, a professional, and it resonated with Ritchie, a single-figure player who is a member at Coolangatta-Tweed Heads Golf Club.

Ritchie was so excited that he did not even get home that night before calling his wife. "He said, 'you've got to see this guy','' recalls Hetherington. "I was like 'yeah, yeah, just drive safely'!''

But Hetherington did take some lessons with Hollands-Smith and suddenly found herself hitting the ball "better than I ever remember hitting it when I played before''.

The golf bug had bitten her again. She played in some men's pro-am events, then a couple of smaller events on the Australian Ladies Professional Golf tour over summer, then graduated to her first four-round tournament in the Oates Vic Open at 13th Beach a few weeks ago.

Her comeback has been successful already. She finished fourth at 13th Beach, rattling home with the low round on Sunday, a 68. Now she is back at the ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open, competing for the first time in the national championship since 2007.

Hetherington is one of Australia's greatest players, an eight-time winner in America, so she has nothing to prove. "I've been one of the best players in the world, so I am aware of the level that you need to play to, to be competitive on tour. And I'm aware of the work that's required to get to that level, so as much as I haven't played for four years, I'm aware of where I needed to get to and I'm confident I'm at that level to play well.''

It is different for her now. Her mother is bringing her three-year-old daughter, Annie, to Melbourne today from Queensland. She has no intention of going back on tour, but she wants to play the Australian events for a few years, at least until she cannot compete any more.

"When I finished (in 2010) I wasn't enjoying my golf and I wasn't enjoying the tour,'' she said. "When I was injured and I realised I wasn't missing it, it helped me to decide that it wasn't what I wanted to do. As exciting as sport can be and golf can be, when it's not going well, it can be horrible. It's a long season, you're travelling by yourself a lot, you're on the other side of the world, all those things. When it's not going well, it's not a good thing to do.

"I played a few events in 2010, finished at the Canadian Open and said that was it. It was September. In December we were pregnant and I didn't play in the Aussie events because I didn't want to take any risks. I didn't play that season. I had Annie in August and I just loved being a Mum, and I really didn't want to make the effort and time to get back into shape to play. To me, now 90 percent of my time is family and our businesses, and 10 percent is me.''

Ritchie has been a strong supporter, since he is in love with the game itself. "He's an addict,'' said Hetherington. "He loves me playing.''

The game has moved on but Hetherington finds that her old TaylorMade Burner driver moves the ball out as far as most players. "It's been nice for me to stop and then come back and see how much you are immersed in your own world, because you have to be as a professional. I think I've probably got a little bit more of a balanced outlook. You know that it's not the be-all and end-all.''

For inspiration, she need look no farther than fellow-Queenslander Karrie Webb, who remains ranked in the top 10 players on the planet at 40 years of age. Hetherington was a contemporary of Webb's; they teamed together to win a World Cup for Australia as far back as 2000.

She is an unabashed admirer of Webb, whom many people regard as Australia's best-ever player of either gender. "I think the way Karrie manages herself and has kept her game and kept wanting to play for as long as she has is extraordinary, really. It's fabulous,'' she said. "She's still winning. There's no other golfer who's winning 20 years after she first won.''

As for Hetherington, she insists she is not just here to make up numbers.  Asked about her expectations for this week, she said: "I'd like to be holding a trophy. I only want to play if I'm being competitive. It's no secret to what's required and the way you have to play.''