Here comes Patty Sheehan striding into 1984, jaw out, arms swinging, living reproof to all those who say things like "good athlete for a woman." Sheehan is a fine athlete, period. And much more. She was the Ladies Professional Golf Association Player of the Year for 1983 and at week's end ranked third on the money list for '84. She plans to blaze right into the LPGA Hall of Fame, setting eye-popping records—and stepping on a few toes, if necessary—along the way. At 27 she is a fierce competitor of independent ways. Her Dodge Charger once sported the slogan WOMEN WHO SEEK EQUALITY WITH MEN LACK AMBITION. But she can be a real softy, too, touching people in special ways.
Though Sheehan lives in Los Gatos, Calif., she's anything but a sun-kissed golden girl. She was born in Middlebury, Vt., the daughter of a coach-of-all-trades, Bobo Sheehan, who learned of her arrival by means of a P.A. bulletin at halftime of a Middlebury College football game: "Here's a final: Patricia Sheehan, 0seven pounds, 15 ounces." At Middlebury, Bobo coached football, baseball, golf and skiing, and he was the U.S. Olympic men's Alpine ski coach in 1956. Patty's mother, Leslie, a multisport athlete herself, is also handy with needle and thread, and it was her task to keep the uniforms in shape. "Head crotch-stitcher," she used to call herself.
Patty grew up in an athletic environment, the little sister trying to play up to the level of her three older brothers. Today she's the one who is at an enviable level, and she's there because she embodies the New England ideals of tenacity and self-reliance. Back in her amateur days, when she could powder the ball but barely control it, she played an exhibition with Lee Trevino. On the first hole she outdrove him. On the next hole she did it again. JoAnne Carner spotted the feisty Sheehan when she first showed up on the LPGA Tour in July 1980. "Patty's going to be so good it's scary," said Big Momma. Says Sheehan's agent, Margaret Leonard, "If I was out there playing, I'd really be afraid of her." Leonard, whom Sheehan met while both were college golfers, handles her business affairs, and Clare Sheils, once the publicist for the entire LPGA Tour, has hitched herself to Sheehan's star and now handles her p.r. Leonard and Sheils have persuaded Sheehan to turn down the $5,000 a day that she could earn in corporate pro-ams and concentrate on winning tournaments. "Patty's a golfer," says Sheils. "That's what she does. We don't want to mess up her place in history. The record book is what people remember."
Sheehan can be great fun—"a leprechaun," says Leonard. After winning her first tournament, the '81 Mazda Classic, Sheehan turned a somersault on the 18th green. After another victory she doused a tournament sponsor with champagne. And after winning the 1983 Corning (N.Y.) Classic, a tournament she had fumbled away the previous two years, she fell to the ground and blew kisses to the crowd. On the side she sings with the Unplayable Lies, the tour's unofficial musical group, which includes Vivian Brownlee, Mary Dwyer and Debbie Massey, among others.
March 19, 1984
Sheehan also has the most diverse and doggedly good-natured fans on the tour. They wear hats, pins and signs proclaiming their allegiance to Sheehan's Irish Mafia and have a propensity for loud cheering. Many are former students or athletes dating from Bobo's coaching days at Middlebury. "Everywhere I go, people want to know, 'How's Bobo?' " says Sheehan.
"I still have doubts," she says. "I look back and think, 'How did I do it? Can I do it again?' I get most of my doubts when I'm off the tour. When I'm out there playing, I'm pretty positive." Says Sheils, "We admire her mental toughness as much as her physical ability. With most people, it's the mental toughness that goes first. With Patty, it'll be just the opposite."
"We're keeping her naive and young so she doesn't get a big head," says Leonard. "It's all part of the image. The minute she complains, I get all over her. She's not a prima donna."
But what an athlete she is. In New England she had been a superb skier. The family moved to Nevada in 1967, when she was 11, and she continued to excel at skiing. At 13 she took up golf and won four straight Nevada and two straight California state amateur championships. She won the AIAW championship in her final year of college at San Jose State, went undefeated in Curtis Cup play, then turned pro and won the LPGA qualifying-school tournament by six strokes. She was named Rookie of the Year in 1981. In '82 she socked away $225,000, winning three titles and Golf Digest's Most Improved Player trophy, before tearing up '83 with $250,399 and four victories, including the LPGA Championship, in which she nailed five straight birdies in the final round and sent the Irish Mafia into orbit.
Sheehan could be the second coming of Babe Zaharias. She is at the top in golf. She can still carve a nice route down a ski slope. She picks up a bowling ball once a year and rolls a 200 game. She knows her way around in basketball and softball, and an astounded teaching pro who watched her play a little tennis pronounced her raw material for the circuit. "I'd like to find something, just one thing, that she'd be a klutz at," says Leonard.
Sheehan plays instinctively, without dwelling on mechanics. She simply attacks a golf course, while others study angles and impact zones. Sheehan strolls through golf oblivious of the possibilities for disaster. "I like to hit it," she says.
But there is another side to Sheehan. Few athletes are more generous with their love, their time and their money. Sheehan is a soft touch. Need help? See Patty. She donates $3,000 to an LPGA tournament in San Jose. You can't get your life together? Talk to Sheehan. That's how Tigh Sheehan came to be. Tigh (pronounced tee) means house in Gaelic, and Sheehan's place in Soquel, Calif. is a home for abused and neglected girls aged 13 to 18. Sheehan bought the four-bedroom house in 1982 and spent $10,000 to remodel it. At any given time, up to six girls are in residence. Sheehan hits up the other women pros for clothing and the little knickknacks that are distributed at pro-am parties. Tiny bars of soap and bottles of shampoo marked MARRIOTT or SHERATON often wind up in the bathrooms at Tigh Sheehan. Says Lucy Wilber, a social worker and therapist who works with the girls, "To the kids, being with Patty and being identified with a winner, matters."
Sheehan knows that love can't be bought; it's something that's given freely. One afternoon in January, before the start of the '84 LPGA Tour, she visited the home, bringing along a Japanese doll as a gift for Anne Leonard, the mother of Sheehan's agent. Anne Leonard is the founder of the Group Home Society, an organization that provides shelter for troubled children in Santa Cruz County and five neighboring counties. An energetic, effusive woman, the elder Leonard has made a career out of her calling: being a mother. Orphaned at age nine—going "from pillar to post," as she puts it—she grew up with a soft spot for those who don't fit in. While raising Margaret and sons Joe and Jim (the latter is an offensive tackle for the USFL's Oakland Invaders), Anne and her husband, John, always had an empty bedroom available for a child with problems.
When her own children had grown up, Anne organized the Group Home Society and opened Halloran Hall, a coed residence in Aptos. Then came Giuliani Independence Hall, a facility for girls in Soquel. One day Anne sounded Sheehan out about donating a pool table for the kids. She also mentioned that the group needed more housing facilities. She was receiving eight to 10 referrals a week from the social service and probation departments of six neighboring counties, young girls on the run or with family problems who had nowhere to turn. She figured the first year's expenses for an additional home would be about $25,000. "Let's do it," said Sheehan. She took out a $120,000 mortgage, and Anne Leonard's friendly network of plumbers, electricians and carpenters volunteered their services. Tigh Sheehan was born. A poster-size photograph of the founder—Little Momma?—hangs in the living room.
"I don't care how the kids get here," says Anne Leonard. "The issue for adolescents is the separation from their families. So we are the family."
Now the telephone at the home is ringing. Sheehan picks it up. "Tigh Sheehan. Patty speaking." Giggles. When the phone rings, everyone squeals and yells. Boys! Battle stations!
"Is Bobbie here?" Patty calls out, wrinkling her nose and sighing. More giggles.
"Listen, are you the guy with the Cadillac?" she says into the phone. "Well, Bobbie left with another good-looking guy...on a field trip or something." Hoots. Hollers. Faces are buried in hands.
"The thing that strikes you when you first meet them is how little they have," says Sheehan. "Anything, any little something, means so much to them. Here I am with just about everything, and yet I feel close to them, and I think they do to me. We get along. We talk." The girls teach Patty the latest rock dances. She tells them all about Japan where she had played in two LPGA tournaments in November.
Loss of innocence, betrayal and rejection where there should be love—these are common elements in the lives of the girls at Tigh Sheehan. Occasionally a girl will spontaneously climb onto Sheehan's lap. "She's been places," says one of the residents. "She knows people. It's just wonderful being able to associate with her."
"When I came here, for the first time I felt special," says another. "It was great to be around people who cared for us."
Another chimes in: "And we don't have to be scared."
Sheehan notices a car that has stopped outside. A woman gets out, removes a bicycle from the trunk, parks it in the driveway and drives off.
"Who's that?" Sheehan asks.
One of the girls says, "Oh, that's my old foster parent. I guess she brought my bicycle back."
Sheehan asks the girl about the woman. It turns out there had been a pattern of scorn and abuse. Sheehan listens intently, her lips tight, with a look of exasperation. "She thought I was crazy," the girl concludes.
"Crazy?" mutters Patty, hugging the girl. "She's crazy, not you."
As commander-in-chief of this teenage salvation army, Sheehan dreams up ways to keep the troops happy. Last year she made a promise to the kids in the three homes under Anne Leonard's aegis: Work at a job all summer, save some money and be rewarded with a trip to Disneyland. Anne Leonard never before had a resident who kept a job through an entire summer. That summer 12 kids punched the clock faithfully and earned their trips.
A dentist gave one of the girls a free set of braces. No one has ever been as proud of a picket-fence smile. Anne Leonard told another resident that she's setting aside $50 a month for the girl's college education. "If you don't go, I'm taking the money for a trip to Paris," Anne says to her. When another girl was approaching her 18th birthday, after which she would be ineligible for residency at Tigh Sheehan, Anne scrambled to find help. The girl was full of bravado about how she planned to marry her boyfriend (in an adult rehabilitation program at the time) and start a family. But in fact she was facing the streets with no money and no job. The girl had been at Tigh Sheehan for only a few months. "We needed her for at least another year," Anne says. In the end, Sheehan offered to contribute clothing and $250 so the girl could complete a practical nursing course and buy uniforms.
Not every story has a happy ending, though. Kids are like delicate vases. "Some of them are so damaged that they never can be made right," says Sheehan. One of Anne Leonard's first male residents at Halloran Hall is serving a six-year term for voluntary manslaughter. And she makes no attempt to conceal the fact that some former Halloran residents sell drugs at a local shopping mall. "They tell me if any of my kids are trying to buy something," she says. Most of the kids' transgressions, however, are minor. When a couple of the residents went AWOL on New Year's Eve, climbing out a window for a rendezvous with some boys, Anne grounded the miscreants for two weeks and had the boys over for a little talk.
"I want to work with young kids when I'm older," says one Tigh Sheehan resident. "Kids who are abused. I know what happened to me. There was no one there to say, 'It's not your fault.' That's important. Not to blame yourself. That's what I've learned here. For the first time, I've found happiness."
Happiness was something Sheehan never had to search for while she was growing up in Middlebury. If the Sheehans were soup, they would be thick, rich and steaming hot, the kind that sticks to your ribs.
Bobo and Leslie Sheehan met some 50 years ago, when they were in the seventh grade in Newport, Vt. Bobo worked his way through Middlebury, holding down three jobs while playing football and baseball and doing a bit of skiing. Leslie attended the University of New Hampshire, then received a master's degree in nursing from Yale.
Later, after marriage and the kids, Bobo was a father first and a coach second, although sometimes the order got a little reversed. He and the boys—Butch, Jack and Steve—dug out a swimming pool in the backyard. It became the water hazard for the family's makeshift miniature golf course. The pole vaulting pit doubled as a sand trap, and Bobo and the kids made a putting green out of the dirt floor in the garage. Patty played tailback in the ragtag football games that sprang up during halftime at Middlebury games. The family's idea of fun was to go down to the college field house and work out together. The three boys were all champion skiers. Patty was on the slopes at age four. "You could see the determination," Bobo says. "If she'd fall, she'd plant that pole down and trudge back up the hill, her jaw sticking out, just like she does on the golf course now."
When the Sheehans moved to Reno, Bobo and Leslie opened a ski shop, and today the parents and two of the boys, Butch, 34, and Steve, 30, run the place during the frenetic winter months; Jack, 31, is a carpenter in Salisbury, Vt. The ski shop is closed in the summer so Bobo can play golf every day. His golf cart is out in the garage. In the den he has an exercise bike. When Bobo gets up in the morning, he climbs on the bike with the newspaper and pedals while he reads the golf tournament results. He has pedaled the equivalent of 7,300 miles.
At 61 Bobo is the very model of the kindly old coach. His hair is white, his face is ruddy and his body is fit. Sitting in the den with a visitor, Bobo recalls the old days lovingly while Leslie does needlepoint in a chair by the fire, occasionally correcting a bit of family history or emphasizing a point.
Says Leslie, "I can remember Bobo so many times saying, 'There's no sense competing if you're not going out to win.' "
Bobo nods his head. "There's only one spot in athletics, and that's winning."
When the family moved to Nevada, Patty was already the top female skier in the nation in her age group. In one of her first ski races out West she beat all the boys, including the local hotshot, McLane McKinney, the older brother of Olympian Tamara McKinney.
That season Patty entered 11 races and won 10. "In the other one, I caught a ski coming out of the starting gate and spun around," she says. "I started to cry. My dad was there, and he yelled, 'Get going!' I took off. I skied as hard as I could. I think I got fourth. Later I was so sorry that I had let him down, that I had disappointed him. That one instance typifies what he's all about. He's quite a guy."
"We never pushed her," says Bobo. "Being in the coaching business, I'd seen too many of these parents push their kids until they rebelled. So we just encouraged her."
When she was 13, Patty announced she was giving up skiing. "I think my father was kind of glad," she says. "He wanted me to make my own way." About that time, Bobo moved the family to its present home in a subdivision that has a country club as its centerpiece. During the summer Patty would go to the golf course early in the morning and come back late. Bobo's advice was simple. About golf: "Keep your eye on the ball." About life: "Don't sell yourself short." Says Leslie, "He would say, 'Pat, you can go as far as you want.' "
In 1977 Sheehan won her third straight Nevada title—by 39 strokes. She enrolled at the University of Nevada at Reno, where the women's golf program was in sad shape. In fact, in her second and third years she was the only player on the team. Off she would go to tournaments by herself. That was the Vermonter in her.
Deciding she needed more competition, Sheehan transferred to San Jose State. Juli Inkster, destined to win three straight U.S. Amateur titles, was on the team there. After Patty won the AIAW women's championship, then blitzed everyone in the Curtis Cup, she turned pro.
She was a streaky putter, but she launched darts with her irons, and her skier's thighs enabled her to hit the ball a long way.
"I wanted to make it on my own," she says. "I kept to myself. I chose not to have friends. It was a lonely time, but it was my way. The telephone, my parents and my friends at home were my life-support system." Sheehan may have been lonely, but, besides winning the Mazda, she finished sixth or better in her last five tournaments that year.
A basic principle in sports is that one learns from one's mistakes. Sheehan forgets hers. She says she has no recollection, for instance, of the 76-73 finish that resulted in her losing by a shot to Jan Stephenson at the 1983 Women's U.S. Open.
Before '83, Sheehan was a bust in the LPGA Championship. In '81 she missed the cut—the only time she has done so on the tour. In '82 she was disqualified for taking an illegal drop. But, ah, last summer at the Jack Nicklaus Sports Center in Kings Island, Ohio she birdied five holes on the final nine, making up seven shots on Sandra Haynie, and won by two. It was about then that she decided she wanted to be Player of the Year. She won that honor by finishing fifth or better in eight of the last 11 events she played, as Bobo pedaled away in Reno, a smile on his face.
"I used to be known as Bobo," he says. "Now I'm Patty's daddy. I'm loving every minute of it."
There is a feeling that Patty Sheehan has stumbled upon the real secret of playing. Here is a golfer, as good as any, who doesn't live, eat, breathe and dream the game. She practices only when necessary. She hardly picked up a club last winter, and yet when she entered a men's tournament in December, the Spalding Pro-Am, in Monterey, she shot a 64 in one round. She's no machine, no Wee Ice Lass. What she has discovered, and what the girls at the Tigh Sheehan are learning, is that golf and life are pretty much the same. They're about as hard as you make them. Straight down the middle works every time.