After all of the misery has been wrung from it, a golf course is a tranquil expanse, a park without visitors. But on this night there is one, a person who has a way of turning up in unexpected places. Muffin Spencer-Devlin, a girl who just wants to have fun, fame and fortune, is seated in her car near the 9th tee of the Jack Nicklaus Sports Center at Kings Island, Ohio, waiting for the fireworks display that goes off nightly at 10 at an adjacent amusement park. Muffin loves fireworks, the more spectacular the better. They remind her of her life, a bittersweet route of juxtapositions: glamour and sparkle intermingled with occasional desperation. Hers is a riches-to-rags-to-riches story.
"I'd like to learn about staging fireworks displays," says Spencer-Devlin. "Of course, there are about a million things I'd like to learn about. Then again, I've probably done more than the average person." To put it mildly. She has been an actress and a model, has tripped off to Africa on weekend whims to watch a friend play backgammon, has hosted her own television show in Japan and, in a more serious vein, came perilously close to self-ruination. As if this life were not enough, Spencer-Devlin believes in reincarnation. In one of her lives she thinks she was King Arthur.
Naturally, any security guard who spots an automobile parked in the middle of a golf course at night, even a courtesy car carrying medieval royalty, would be curious. "I'd recognize that muffler anywhere," says Spencer-Devlin, listening to the rumble of the security man's car. She does not even glance back. "He stopped the other night and asked: 'Can I help you?' All of my life, security guards and people like that have been asking me what I'm doing. They never can figure it out."
About 10 years ago Spencer-Devlin was waking up every day in the city that never sleeps. She was in her aspirant actress/model phase. Woody Allen once said that 80% of life was showing up, and Spencer-Devlin wasn't very punctual. There were so many distractions. She would go into a nightclub, a Cole Porter kind of place where the men were all handsome, with slicked-back hair and dark suits and precisely the proper show of starched cuffs. Soon she would be at the piano, a microphone in her hand, singing Night and Day. People were transfixed. Even now her New York friends tell Muffin stories, among them the one about the night she had no place to sleep and a buddy who worked at the Carlyle Hotel opened the cafe and let her curl up under entertainer Bobby Short's piano.
August 18, 1985
Her life in those days was right out of the lyrics to The Lady Is a Tramp: "I like the free, fresh wind in my hair. Life without care...." Says Spencer-Devlin, "That character in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Holly Golightly, that was me to a T. Adventure, that was what I was after. If I had been born a man, I would have been a pirate or something, but being a girl, all I could aspire to be was Holly. I'd go out to dinner and come back three days later. There were always interesting people around. I don't know where they came from, or why. They liked me. I liked them. They'd be around for as long as the evening went on—sometimes a night, sometimes a week. Occasionally, I wonder what happened to them. We never exchanged phone numbers."
Spencer-Devlin was 21, pretty and living in the big city. The world was her oyster, but after a while there wasn't enough cocktail sauce to keep even that from being bland. She was drifting and in danger of going under when a life preserver floated by. She grabbed it. It was golf. Although she had competed as an amateur when she was a teenager, she really wasn't very good when she decided to turn pro. She failed three times to get her player's card. On the minitours she is remembered for playing in a fishing vest, lying flat on her stomach to read putts and, after making a bogey or worse, storming off into the woods to thrash about. But she stuck with it. Now 31 and one of the leading players on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour, Spencer-Devlin has what she always wanted, from the time she was a poor little rich girl in Piqua, Ohio, looking at pictures in magazines and playing dress-up. She is a star. Her act is free, fun and, best of all, never dull. She walks up hills backward, has been known to hang upside down in motel rooms and is a friend of the whales. The lady is a scamp.
Dee Darden, the retired Air Force pilot who now caddies for Nancy Lopez, says of Spencer-Devlin, "She is the sanest visitor from another planet we have." Burch Riber, who runs the LPGA Championship, observes, "Everybody thinks she's a flake. I think she's crazy like a fox." Lori Garbacz, another pro with a tendency toward the bizarre—Garbacz has been known to drive her car in a rainstorm holding an umbrella out the window—claims that she and Spencer-Devlin were neighbors in another life. "We probably exchanged recipes," says Garbacz.
If so, they contained a lot of spice. Recently, someone asked Spencer-Devlin about her reported love of scuba diving. "Oh, I learned that when I was in Africa," she said blithely. Then she went into a lengthy story about being flown to Kenya by a friend who was playing a high stakes backgammon match against an English casino owner. While there, she met two young men who shared her love of adventure. One night they tried to break into a museum—it seemed the thing to do. As they neared it, they wondered why the streets were deserted. Walking around in the dark, they heard rustling sounds. Later, they found out that the area was rife with poisonous snakes that came out in the evenings to seek relief from the heat. "I think I was a lot of fun in those days," Spencer-Devlin says. "People liked to have me around."
Spencer-Devlin is one of the more attractive players on the circuit, even without makeup, which is the way she usually appears. She is tall, about 5'11", and willowy, with legs to match, two reasons why the LPGA had her pose as Betty Grable when the organization put together a pinup calendar in 1982.
Her nickname is Dash, partly because of her peripatetic nature, partly because of her hyphenated name. Many people think she is married to professional golfer Bruce Devlin. "They're always approaching me and saying they saw my husband on television," she says. Her name is actually Hellene Harrington Spencer. Fellow golfer Hollis Stacy says, "We used to have the same initials until she went to the hyphen." Spencer-Devlin combines the names of her late father, Dan Spencer, a suave fellow given to wine, women and song, and her stepfather, Bill Devlin, a former Wall Street executive. Her grandmother, Helene Harrington, nicknamed her Muffin at birth because of forceps marks on her forehead. "She looks just like a little muffin," her grandmother said.
Spencer-Devlin comes from a family that anchored Piqua. There were physicians on both sides of the family, and one of her grandfathers invested wisely in the manufacturing concerns that sprang up in town. Her mother, the former Pat Harrington, was a talented amateur golfer who earned the nickname "The Consolation Kid" because it was often her misfortune to be matched against Babe Didrikson Zaharias in the first round of tournaments.
Pat Harrington drew a tough match in marriage, also. Dan Spencer was a traveling salesman. He was a cheerful alcoholic who loved to party. It was a stormy union. Eventually Dan and Pat were divorced, and he moved to Florida. An impressive inheritance allowed him to quit his job. In retirement, he would drink all night, listening to jazz, one of his passions. One early morning in 1975, he choked to death on some food. He died in his bathrobe.
"To me he always looked like Clark Gable," says Spencer-Devlin. "I remember him telling me to hit the ball as hard as I could. 'You take a big whap at it,' he'd say. There is this old guy in Piqua who knew my dad. He says that I walk like him on a golf course."
When her mother married Bill Devlin and Muffin and her brother David moved to Merrick, a Long Island suburb of New York City, Muffin acquired three step-sisters and a step-brother. She attended the Cathedral School of Saint Mary, an Episcopal prep school, and graduated in three years, winning the Mary Holbrook Russell award for integrity and honor as a senior. She was president of the athletic association, a member of the student council, the hockey, basketball and tennis teams, and won an English prize for outstanding achievement. "Before I got into drugs and freaked out, I was sort of a model citizen," says Spencer-Devlin. "I was always trying new things, but I had a great future ahead of me—one of those Most Likely to Succeed types." She also dabbled in junior golf, but never took it very seriously.
Chums from high school remember Spencer-Devlin as the quintessential smart girl bored with academics, often showing up late for class. "Soon she'd be sleeping," recalls Lynne Gull, a schoolmate. "I mean there would be only five girls in French class and there Muffin would be, snoring away. She was always being yelled at. But nothing intimidated her."
She wanted to go to Princeton, which, several years earlier, had begun accepting female students, but she was not accepted. So, hurt and rebellious, she enrolled at the American College in Leysin, Switzerland, a party school. She considered being a downhill skier. But, in fact, her training consisted of drinking and experimenting with drugs. "Drugs were part of the culture, and I got sucked in." After one night on the town, she crawled back up the mountain to her dorm, staggered into the elevator, pushed the fifth-floor button and collapsed. Other students found her there when morning came.
Golf was far from her mind. "I was a country club player," says Spencer-Devlin. Hollis Stacy remembers the first time she saw Muffin at a junior tournament. "We were about 17. I was there with my mother. Muffin arrived with a guy about 40. Needless to say, she was the talk of the tournament."
"He was 34," Spencer-Devlin says, "exactly twice my age."
In 1972, after a year in Switzerland, Spencer-Devlin and the college dissolved their relationship by mutual agreement. She enrolled at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. because she knew some people there and thought she could play on the golf team. "My first two months, I switched my major three times," she recalls. "Finally I wound up in drama. I was going to be an actress."
Her two years at Rollins were significant because she became reacquainted with her father. "I hadn't seen him since I was five or six," Spencer-Devlin says. "My mother never talked about him. My relatives always told me that he wouldn't have anything to do with me and there was no use in trying to contact him. All I knew was that he had married another woman and was living in Florida. The golf team was in Miami, so I called him. He came to pick me up. It was really weird. I hadn't seen him for about 13 years, and it was like meeting my alter ego. I talked like him, turned a phrase the same way he did. After about 10 minutes he looked at me and said, 'You know, the acorn doesn't fall very far from the tree.' Then he took me back to the house to meet his wife and he and I spent the night listening to jazz records, smoking dope and drinking."
If ever there was a dire side to Spencer-Devlin's life, it was when she left Rollins and went to New York City to become a star. "The farthest south I lived was in a loft at Broadway and Canal above Dave's diner, a truck stop," she says. "And the farthest north was at 89th and Madison Avenue in a penthouse." The idea was to try everything. She says Jackie Onassis once gave her a ride in her limousine. They had met in a ski shop where Spencer-Devlin worked briefly as a salesclerk.
One evening Spencer-Devlin went to see singer Mabel Mercer at the St. Regis Hotel. That night a city official presented Mercer with a key to New York City. In the foyer between shows, Spencer-Devlin encountered the entertainer and, impulsively, took off a huge gold chain she was wearing. "Here, Miss Mercer," she said. "You've got the key, you need a chain to hang it on." At the next show, Mercer performed with the chain around her neck and the key dangling from it.
Spencer-Devlin was irresponsible, prone to emotional extravagance, theatrical, easily bored. Nothing seemed to faze her. She mystified her family. There were too many late-night calls, too many problems. She was diagnosed—mistakenly, she insists—as a manic-depressive and for brief periods was a patient in two mental wards and a sanitorium. It was the lowest time of her life. She was eccentric, certainly, liked to have a good time, sure, but she knew she wasn't crazy. She left the sanitorium and spent the next six months searching for a goal, some purpose.
"I once lived on Irish coffee for about two weeks," says Spencer-Devlin. "Maybe one week. Time gets stretched out when you're like that. It's like you're taking uppers and downers at the same time. No wonder I was in the ozone. All the drugs, legal and illegal. I remember in the hospital I managed to get peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at lunch. The rest of the place went into an uproar. I loved it. All I ever wanted to do was what I wasn't supposed to do."
In May 1976, she found herself at the Women's International, a pro tournament on Hilton Head Island, S.C. There she saw her old junior golf buddies, Laura Baugh and Stacy. She had come from Pinehurst, N.C., where she had devastated a field of 45-year-old women in the fifth flight of the North and South Women's Amateur. Don't laugh. It was the only tournament she had ever won. Flush with success, she decided to join the pro circuit. This was serious. She moved to Hilton Head, took a job as a waitress in a restaurant and hit golf balls all day on the driving range at the Palmetto Dunes Resort. "I thought she was hopeless," says a fellow who knew her then. "I was watching her from a distance one day, and it was pathetic. She kept hitting ground balls. Then she would beat her clubs on the ground out of frustration. It was laughable that she thought she could play the pro tour."
Her roommate from those days, Karen Shapiro, now the professional at the Long Cove Club at Hilton Head, remembers, "When Muffin was around, something was always happening. Once she came sliding down this banister, hit the floor and her knee went right through the wall."
Spencer-Devlin went off to try the minitours. In California she met a doctor, Arthur Kaslow, who told her he believed that her gypsy life-style, junk-food diet and low blood sugar had been responsible for her erratic behavior. She became the Gary Player of women's golf, carrying around exotic natural foods. She ate in health food restaurants where the water was certified pure by scientific test, gave up smoking, all but eliminated her drinking and became a physical-fitness buff. She bought Gravity Boots and hung from door frames because of a sore back, became a devotee of chiropractics and got involved in the Church of Scientology. She was into everything, including being named to the advisory board of the Pacific Whale Foundation.
She also became a better golfer. Twice she attended the players' school, aiming for her LPGA tournament card, and both times she bombed out. The third time she missed by only six shots. The next year, pumped up from reading about psycho-cybernetics—she listened to a p-c tape in her car on the four-hour drive to the tournament—playing the theme from Superman every morning in her room, and with inspirational messages taped everywhere, she qualified.
Spencer-Devlin was always open to suggestions. In 1980 she met a teaching pro, John Redman, who suggested she hit some shots. The wind was blowing straight into her face. "She hit a couple of wedge shots that went straight up and almost came back and hit her," recalls Redman. "I couldn't believe it. I told her, 'You must be the world's best putter, because you can't hit the ball at all.' I thought she was going to quit right there. Instead she said, 'Teach me.' "
Since then, with the help of Redman, the counsel of sports psychologist Bob Rotella, endless hours with a machine that refined her putting stroke and made her one of the best putters in the game, a remarkable capacity for practice and a similar drive for excellence, Spencer-Devlin's progress has been steady. In her first year, 1979, she won $2,527 and was 112th on the money list. Then: 1980-$7,904 (92nd); '81-$13,501 (79th); '82-$26,066 (59th); '83-$27,686 (63rd); '84-$73,324 (23rd). This year, which has been her best, she has won $85,593 and is 19th on the money list, 11th in scoring (72.56) and fourth in putting (29.52).
LPGA statistics list leaders in birdies made as Alice Miller, Nancy Lopez, Pat Bradley, Patty Sheehan and JoAnne Carner. Sixth is Spencer-Devlin. Says Stacy, giving credit where it's obviously due, "When she came out here, she couldn't play at all. I mean at all. But she's worked hard. I think she'll win this year. I used to make fun of her. She'd show up with this green stuff, her tofu or whatever. And then she'd eat some dirt. But she made herself well."
In 1981 she took a crash course in Japanese, and over the past four years she has spent a total of eight months playing the Japanese circuit and hosting a television golf show. This year, however, she has cut back her appearances in Japan because she is determined to break through and win a tournament. Her best showings have been two second-place finishes. "I've put in a lot of work the last seven years," she says. "I improved a lot. But I'm only halfway there. And I don't think the second half will take as long."
A devotee of self-inspiration, she read once that Player sat in front of a mirror and said over and over, "I'm the best player in the world." So, following Player's example, every week in her motel room, she tapes up a message: "I'm the best putter in the world." On her yardage book, she has written "Patience," and she carries around pieces of paper listing her swing keys. One says: GEAR BACK¾ SPEED, SWING SMOOTHER AND SMOOTHER, SLOW BACKSWING, TUNE INTO MY BODY, RELEASE TENSION, WARM AND HEAVY, 4-4-4-4 3-2-1, 1-2-3.
It makes sense to her, but then so does reincarnation. "I mean, why not believe it?" says Spencer-Devlin. "It doesn't hurt anybody. It answers some questions for me: Why I seek out adventure. Why I seek out fame. Didn't you ever dream about swashbuckling? If you open yourself up to that, you have a little insight into what is going on in the world."
Swashbuckling aside, Spencer-Devlin is clearly a vastly different person from the Spencer-Devlin of 10 years ago. She is anti-drugs, anti-alcohol. Golf saved her life. Besides teaching her discipline and responsibility, that you had to pay for your mistakes with bogeys or worse, golf gave her a goal, something to work for—and a way to get her picture in magazines and on television and her name up in lights. No wonder she works so hard at it.
"I'm always running into people who were tournament winners and good players on those minitours," Spencer-Devlin says. "They're kind of amazed at what I've done. It's fun to see them, sort of like being the bad girl and going back to your high school reunion as a big success. But what's really been nice are all the people who have come up and said, 'I'm really proud of what you've done, that you've got it all together.'
"I've gone through so much—there were days when I was afraid to answer the door because I was afraid it was someone serving a warrant—that in the future I definitely see myself as an Auntie Mame type, sort of passing on all of this knowledge about life. I have this vision of myself pushing this little pram, or walking down the street with a little boy in knickerbockers, a Little Lord Fauntleroy. Maybe it's purely egotistical, but I think I'd have a pretty neat kid. I'd certainly go shopping in terms of choosing a father. In fact, I'm shopping all the time. After all, life is a great big supermarket."
Things have changed so much. The rags are riches again. One joy accruing from her success was strutting into Tiffany & Co. in New York and opening a charge account—coming back to the Big Apple with money to spend. Another has been the close bond she has formed with her mother and stepfather, who now live in Boynton Beach, Fla. There has been a lot of consolation for The Consolation Kid. Pat Harrington Devlin is so proud of Muffin that she is a volunteer scorer each year at the Mazda Classic of Deer Creek in Deerfield Beach, Fla., near Muffin's home, just so she can stroll the fairways with her daughter.
The day after last June's LPGA Championship ended, Spencer-Devlin played in a pro-am in Cincinnati that was sponsored by the Fifth Third Bank. These affairs are always a bit like blind dates, with an awkward period that can last a few minutes or an entire day. Sometimes they're fun, sometimes they're dreadful. By the second hole, Spencer-Devlin had her four teammates' names memorized and was urging them on with shouts of encouragement and advice. Walking down a fairway to her drive, she saw two balls. "I hope mine's the short one," she said to a companion. "It's better for everyone's ego."
After a few holes, she had them giving high fives after good shots. It took a little instruction. "C'mon, guys," Spencer-Devlin said. "If you're going to be a bro', when someone gives you a high five, you've got to give 'em one back." Given one more day, she confided, she could have had them break dancing.
Pat Bell, a member of the group, was having trouble with his game. As the holes went by, he developed the countenance of a basset hound.
"O.K., Patrick," Spencer-Devlin said as Bell addressed a shot on the fairway. "Now imagine you're the bank president and you don't have a care in the world. Just relax and think of being the head honcho."
Bell nodded, swung and watched in fascination as his ball soared straight and true.
Spencer-Devlin nodded her head. "See how easy it is?"
She has not forgotten where she came from. At tournaments, she is warm and friendly, no matter what her score, and when kids ask her for golf balls, she passes them out like jelly beans. A few years ago at the LPGA Championship, she noticed two little girls, Amy and Megan Staurovsky, wearing junior golf program T shirts. She walked with them and had them demonstrate their golf swings. Later she gave them autographs and balls. The next year, their father, Ron, sent her a letter. Spencer-Devlin wrote back. A friendship developed. "Every year we go out and watch Muffin," says Ron Staurovsky. "She's special to us, not because she's a great golfer but because she's the same with everyone. In this age, all you read about athletes are drugs, holdouts and strikes. It's nice to meet someone who acts so human."
As a little girl, Muffin went on a trip to New York City with her mother. Muffin loved it. They stayed at The Plaza, and that night, while her mother went to dinner, Muffin ran around the hotel room, chasing her babysitter with a child's rubber bow and arrow. Recently, Spencer-Devlin was in the 30th Street station in Philadelphia, wearing a white dress and looking very sophisticated, on her way to meet with executives of the United Jersey Bank, who wanted her to do some promotional work. The station has slick marble floors. She took off running, then skidded about 15 feet before stopping with a flourish. She may have come a long way, but she'll always be just a little Muffin.