THE first thing you notice about rookie professional Alison Whitaker is not nervous tension but her good natured humour.
Whitaker’s an effervescent, fun-loving person with an infectious smile and a bubby personality.
She exudes energy and laughter is her constant companion.
When we caught up for a chat she was eating which, she says, is one of life’s little pleasures.
It’s what the former elite amateur, who spent four years at Duke University in North Carolina, enjoys doing when she’s not playing golf.
Her other favourite pastime is playing her guitar.
Whitaker, 25, has spent the past two months at home in Melbourne preparing for a return to the US where she has conditional status on the US LPGA Tour and a full playing card on the Futures Tour courtesy of finishing 22nd at qualifying school.
In 2005, Whitaker was a semi-finalist at the US Amateur and in 2006 she joined Duke University where she majored in psychology.
“I don’t know if I studied psychology or I was just a psycho,” Whitaker laughs.
“I enjoyed psychology – it’s good for life and I wish everyone could study it to get a better feel of understanding people in general.”
Back home in Melbourne, Whitaker has spent the past six weeks playing ALPG events and preparing for her rookie pro season in the US.
“It’s an exciting time of my career and I am just rapt about that and can’t wait to get out there – I’m so excited,” she said.
“College really proved to be a good stepping stone for me.
“They really do prepare you for professional golf with the way you have to adapt your work ethic to make the most of your practice time every day because you have to do it around a full schedule of college classes.
“So you learn to be time efficient.”
Whitaker, who had a stellar amateur career which included winning the Victorian Amateur title and representing Australia, told Inside Golf she was ready for professional golf.
“I haven’t set any goals yet,” she said. “I am reluctant to do it because I generally play better when I have nothing to lose.
“I have loosely set goals, but my aim is to make sure I enjoy it.
“It’s such an awesome opportunity for me and I don’t want to waste my time trying too hard because when you try too hard that’s when start playing bad.
“I usually play my best golf when I am enjoying myself.
“I don’t enjoy playing good golf – I play good golf when I’m enjoying myself.”
“Golf is an inverse game – it’s a horrible game but we all love it.”
Like most young golfers, Whitaker was introduced to the game by her parents, but it was Royal Melbourne club pro Bruce Green who took her game to another level.
“I was playing with my mum and my sister at Sandringham during the last Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne when Bruce and Bill Richardson (general manager) drove over and said, ‘show us what you’ve got, Al’.
Impressed with her ability, Green offered to coach her.
“He coached me for the next four years and he was an amazing mentor who taught me how to love crowds.
“He used to make me hit balls in front of people all the time and put me under pressure. Now I’m benefiting from it because I love big events.”
Away from the rigours of pro golf, Whitaker enjoys cooking and playing her guitar.
In fact, she says her guitar, chef’s knife and golf clubs are her most prized possessions.
“Those are the three things I always pack when I’m on tour,” she said.
“I love my music and taught myself to play guitar.
“I didn’t have much of a voice when I started, but I had an ear for it and that definitely helped.
“My voice has improved but some people, a.k.a. my sister, beg to differ.
“I also love cooking and eating so the food never goes to waste.
“I try to challenge myself to cook different cuisines like pastas, Spanish and Japanese food every now and then. I mix it up and try to do a world tour (of food).”
Whitaker grew up in a loving, tight-knit family unit that encouraged plenty of laughter.
“We are the type of people that get through life with a lot of laughter and when times are bad we all pull together.
“I am so spoilt with my family – there’s so much love and laughter, which is usually at each others’ expense.
“Don’t get me wrong, we are not holding hands and singing Kumbaya.
“We are definitely getting into each other every now and then.
“My sister Lauren likes playing pranks on me like hiding things in my food and who knows what else.”
I ask if Americans get her Aussie sense of humour.
“My sense of humour gets lost on a lot of Americans. It took them a little while to work out I was joking the majority of the time.
“I am someone who gets a lot out of life and that’s the main thing I want to walk away from all the experiences saying, ‘I tried my best and I got the most out of it regardless of the outcome’.”
Rachel, Greg won’t give an inch
EVEN in retirement, Rachel Hetherington is still a force to be reckoned with – especially when it comes to a round of golf with husband and former Test cricketer Greg Ritchie.
They don’t often get the opportunity to play golf together due to work commitments, but when they do it’s a battle of epic proportions.
Still, you’d expect nothing less from two highly competitive, high profile sporting champions.
I ask Hetherington how serious these husband/wife matches get.
“It’s very serious,” she said. “We are both very competitive and we usually have a bet and I don’t like losing and neither does he.
“He plays off a four handicap and is a really good player. That’s what bugs me because I have to play really well to beat him.
“I don’t want to work that hard when I play golf anymore.”
Hetherington said the pair was evenly matched on the golf course because they played off the same tees.
“I was ahead for a while, but Greg won the last couple of matches.
“He hits it a long way so off the same tees it’s a bit tough and I have got to scramble well, which is a good way to practice.”
Even though they play off the same tees, Hetherington has to give Ritchie a few shots.
“It’s pretty tough to give shots to a good player,” she said.
“I don’t agree with it because we have to play off the same tees.
“He gets a pretty good deal, but it is good fun. Even when he played cricket he loved golf and almost always took his clubs on most tours.
“He loves golf far more than I do. Golf to Greg is what surfing is to me.”
In the lead-up to her retirement, Hetherington would grab her surfboard and hit the beach at every opportunity.
Unfortunately, a skateboarding accident left her with a broken ankle at the start of 2010 and surfing was off the agenda for a while.
The 38-year-old told Inside Golf she had no regrets about retiring from the US LPGA Tour.
“I am enjoying my golf far more now and I have enjoyed it far more in the last year, but I just don’t want to play competitively anymore.
“I guess that’s the unfairness of it.”