Patty Sheehan takes the pain out of golf. She also can take the mystery out of golf tournaments. She did both last week in her calm and smiling way, winning the LPGA Championship Sunday with a flurry of birdies and broken records, finally walking down the 18th fairway of the Grizzly Course at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Center in King's Island, Ohio, applauding the crowd, herself, the weather—who knows? It was beautiful.
No "negatalk" last week. That's the term used by Sheehan's close friend and agent, Margaret Leonard, to describe Sheehan's rare periods of pessimism. No negatalk. No mistakes. None. Sheehan made the tournament hers alone when she went from even par at the turn on Friday to 12 under on Saturday—a span of 27 holes. From then on the championship was just a springtime stroll through the park. Sheehan's 71-70-63-68-272 put her 16 under par and gave her a 10-stroke victory over Beth Daniel and Pat Bradley and her second straight LPGA title.
As for the records, Sheehan broke a bunch of them. Her 16 under shattered the championship scoring mark of 13 under set by Nancy Lopez on the same course in 1978. Her victory margin was the largest in the tournament's 30-year history, one better than Mickey Wright's runaway in 1961. Sheehan's almost unbelievable, certifiably spectacular round of 63 on Saturday, when she had eight birdies and a closing eagle, matched the lowest score in a single round in a major championship—by a man or woman. And Sheehan was also the first to win back-to-back LPGA Championship titles since Wright did it in 1960-61.
To paraphrase Bobby Jones' words about Jack Nicklaus, Sheehan plays a game with which most people are not familiar. When she's right, she's awesome. In the final round of last year's LPGA she nailed five straight birdies and made up seven strokes to overtake Sandra Haynie. When her game is on, she's marvelously single-minded, her concentration so intense that the outside world is totally excluded. "She creates her own reality," says a rival pro.
"I think birdies," says Sheehan. Never was that more evident than on Saturday. The 6,357-yard Grizzly, designed by Nicklaus, is one of the longest layouts the women play all year. Some of the pin placements were exceedingly treacherous, tucked maliciously behind bunkers. And, the wind was gusting unpredictably, especially on the back nine. In other words, the course was no sponge from which anyone could squeeze out birdies.
Sheehan started the day two strokes behind the 36-hole leader, Betsy King, and finished 11 strokes ahead of King. Sheehan's putter and indomitable spirit did it. She went out in 31, dropping birdie putts of 20, three, 25, 10 and 15 feet, then birdied the 10th hole with a 30-footer. "At that point, I knew everything was going my way," she said.
After Sheehan birdied the 12th and 13th, she began thinking of Wright's all-time LPGA single-round record of 62, set in Midland, Texas in 1964. Of course, this sort of preposterous thinking almost caused Sheehan to bogey the 16th hole; she saved par with an 18-foot putt. Then she did bogey the par-3 17th, hitting a six-iron short, chipping up and missing a nine-footer.
But there would be no negatalk, remember. In the gallery, Leonard had already figured out that Sheehan would need a double-eagle 2 on the par-5 18th to match Wright's 62. "C'mon, Patty," she was yelling. "You can do it." Sheehan responded with an astounding drive measured by tournament officials at 304 yards. That left her 162 yards from the pin, which was across a lake. Why not go for it? She had a seven-stroke lead. Sheehan grabbed a six-iron and, with the type of aggressiveness that Lee Trevino says reminds him of Tom Watson, hit it 30 feet past the hole. Then she curled the putt into the cup with the kind of putting that Trevino says reminds him of Ben Crenshaw.
When Sheehan made the eagle, Leonard gave such a yell and a holler that, she said, "my back went into spasm."
"I'm not psychic," said Dick McCarney, her caddie, "but when she made those early birdies, I knew what was coming. You were watching the greatest player out there."
McCarney is part of Sheehan's Irish connection. Her very vocal group of fans calls itself "Sheehan's Irish Mafia," and Leonard, a card-carrying member, was the most vocal cheerleader all week. Every time Sheehan made a putt, Leonard let out "the birdie call," a sort of combination Swiss yodel and California bellow. "The other players hate it," says Leonard. "It bugs them."
It was Sheehan who was bugged about two months ago. After following up her LPGA Player of the Year season with a win at the Elizabeth Arden Classic in February and third-and seventh-place finishes the next two weeks, she started to flounder. The media had discovered Tigh Sheehan, the home for teenage girls in Soquel, Calif. that Sheehan supports, and soon Patty began reading week after week about what a great human being she was. Not yet ready for sainthood, she told Leonard, "I need five weeks off. Everybody keeps telling me how great I am. I can't be a jerk even if I want to, and it's driving me nuts." To friends she said, "Things were a lot better when I had only one checkbook."
When Sheehan came back to the tour two weeks ago, she came up with one of those little nuggets of wisdom she uses to motivate herself: "It's not going to last forever. Have fun." Now she says, "It was great to get in touch with myself again."
Sheehan arrived at the LPGA relatively quietly, and happy that most of the early attention was being focused on Jan Stephenson, the blonde bombshell who exploded over what she said was a tour trend to play shortened, Minnie Mouse courses. That made her one of the few golfers ever to carp about the game being too easy. Stephenson, whose short skirts and provocative poses and posters have given her a racy image, also provided a new twist on the phrase "Banned in Boston." Jan has banned Boston. She will boycott the upcoming event there because the Radisson-Ferncroft course, just over 6,000 yards long, is not long enough for her. Meanwhile, at the LPGA, Jan played catch-up, opening with a 77 and eventually finishing in a tie for 20th, 20 strokes behind Sheehan.
JoAnne Carner, another media favorite, had a worse week. A $1.5 million bonus awaited the winner of three designated tournaments—the Corning Classic, the LPGA and this week's McDonald's Classic—or $500,000 for the winner of two of those three events. Carner had won at Corning the week before, so a win in the LPGA would have been worth half a million in addition to the champion's check for $37,500. But $500,000, she said, "could be my choking point." Big Momma shot a first-round 74, a pair of 76s and a 73 that left her 56th, 27 chokes off the pace.
Sheehan, meanwhile, woke up Sunday with a nine-stroke lead over the chase group: Bradley, Patti Rizzo and Cindy Hill. Sheehan also was a nervous wreck. At breakfast, she told Leonard, "What if I lose? I'll look like a 'doof.' "
Said Leonard, "Go clean the condo. You'll feel better." Then Leonard wrote down three records for Patty to shoot at: Louise Suggs's alltime victory margin of 14 strokes in the 1949 U.S. Women's Open; Hollis Stacy's 72-hole scoring record of 17 under par, set in Springfield, Ill. in 1977; and Lopez' LPGA scoring record of 13 under.
Sheehan drives a car with license plates that read 23 UNDER, and says, "I have to be aggressive." She bogeyed the first hole Sunday, but came back with a spectacular nine-iron approach shot on the next hole that almost went in for an eagle 2. The closest anyone got was six strokes, when Bradley birdied the 10th hole. About then Sheehan had a talk with herself. "Look," she said, "you're far enough out in front. Start making birdies." She made five of them on the back nine. That's golf Sheehan's way.
Lopez' record was taken care of, but Suggs's would have to wait. Sheehan could have tied Stacy's 72-hole record with another eagle on 18, but couldn't bring it off. After a fine drive and a four-iron to within 25 feet, her eagle putt singed the right edge of the cup and stayed out.
Later, Patty used network television to communicate with one of her brothers back home in Reno. "Thanks for the message, Steve," Patty said cryptically into the camera. Steve, it turned out, had called the golf course at 4:30 a.m. Reno time on Sunday with a message for his sister: "Tell her she looks great. Break the record today. And we send our love and confidence."
No negatalk. Nothing to intrude upon Patty's reality. This was vintage Sheehan, the painless way to winning golf.