To watch Patty Sheehan swing a golf club is to witness the gift of natural grace. But to watch her soothe, with intuitive ease, the fragile psyches of troubled adolescent girls is to understand how truly deep that gift runs.
For the last five years, the ebullient Sheehan has been the benefactor of Tigh Sheehan, a group home in Soquel, Calif., for 13- to 18-year-old girls who live apart from their parents. As many as six girls at a time live in the four-bedroom suburban residence as they struggle to overcome emotional and behavioral problems often related to abuse, neglect and abandonment. Tigh (pronounced tee) Sheehan, which in Gaelic means house of Sheehan, is a haven where nearly 60 damaged girls have found solace, love and, sometimes, cures for their ills.
Sheehan, 31, has helped the girls while tending very nicely to her career. LPGA Player of the Year in 1983 and winner of the LPGA Championship that year and in '84, she has won 17 tournaments. She's seventh among women pros in alltime career earnings with $1,518,070.
Sheehan's playing schedule doesn't allow for too many visits to Tigh Sheehan, but the half dozen she makes each year are major occasions for the girls. The professional live-in counselors enthusiastically welcome her and her homegrown brand of therapy, which consists in large part of a good ear, an infectious laugh and lots of hugs.
"Most older people can't help projecting authority and demanding respect around teenagers," says counselor Judy Richards. "But Patty's way is unintimidating. She doesn't judge. The girls identify her as a friend to trust."
During a visit earlier this month, Sheehan broke the ice by doing some Pee-wee Herman impressions that drew howls. When one of the residents showed off her two pet rats, Sheehan did a gut check and, without so much as a muffled scream, allowed one to crawl up her neck. She passed an informal pop quiz on hip expressions ("It's fully rad, dude") that the girls had taught her during a previous visit. Before she left, she was giddily serenaded with four consecutive sing-alongs to the pop hit I Think We're Alone Now, by Tiffany.
Sheehan was aware that the holiday season may be when Tigh Sheehan residents are most vulnerable emotionally. When one girl stayed in her room, upset because a friend had run away the night before, Sheehan offered to talk about it. Ten minutes later, the two emerged from the room hugging.
"Patty cheers up the whole house," said 16-year-old Gwen Warton, a resident of Tigh Sheehan since May. "She takes things that are gloomy and serious and makes them happier. I'd like to be more like that."
Anne Leonard, founder and executive director of the Group Home Society, which provides shelter for as many as 33 troubled teenage boys and girls at four group homes, including Tigh Sheehan, and several foster homes in Santa Cruz County, marvels at Sheehan's ability to relate to the youngsters. "Just from knowing Patty, the girls get a sense of identity, which is the first thing they lose when they are separated from their parents," says Leonard. "The girls who have left our program invariably say their most important experiences at Tigh Sheehan occurred with Patty."
Sheehan downplays her role. She says she simply trusts her instincts, drawing on her own warm family experiences as the youngest of four children. "I try to keep my time with the girls light," she says. "Just fun and games and laughter. Because I've been so lucky, it's very difficult for me to comprehend what goes on in the deep, dark secrets of life. That's for people who are trained to help. I try to give them some of the happiness I grew up with."
The idea for Tigh Sheehan came after Leonard mentioned to Sheehan, then a not-yet-rich third-year pro, that the Group Home Society needed more housing facilities. Sheehan turned to her agent, who happened to be Leonard's daughter, Margaret, and said, "Let's do something. We've got to help."
Sheehan considers the $25,000 a year she puts into the home money well spent. "It's very satisfying when I see improvement with the kids," she says. "I know that indirectly, at least, I've helped. I've also learned a lot about perspective. There has been many a time when I've thought, "You know, this putt really doesn't matter. There are so many more important things than golf.' "
As honorary chairperson of the Group Home Society, Sheehan has recruited honorary board members like Gerald Ford, Bobby Orr, Peggy Fleming Jenkins, Jim Rice and Peter Jacobsen. She regularly gets other tour players to donate clothing for her girls and has persuaded LPGA tournament sponsors to contribute furniture, video equipment and even makeup kits.
The average stay at Tigh Sheehan is a year, and Leonard and Sheehan have done their best to make the environment a homey one. The decor is predominantly pink, Sheehan's favorite color, and fluffy pillows are everywhere. "We want softness," says Anne Leonard. "They've had enough rough spots."
"You can see the pain in their eyes, even when they are laughing," Sheehan says. "Sometimes, though, when they get real excited, the pain seems to go away." Sheehan creates many such moments. She takes the girls to dinner and on shopping trips. When her adopted home state of Nevada declared Patty Sheehan Day in 1984, she brought two Tigh Sheehan residents along in a private plane that was greeted with a red carpet at the Reno airport. She underwrites the annual Patty Sheehan Disneyland Challenge, which awards free trips to Disneyland to any Group Home Society resident who has saved three-quarters of his or her salary from a summer job.
Every year Sheehan invites the girls of Tigh Sheehan to watch her play in the San Jose Classic. "To them, it's a bunch of weird women playing a stupid game," she says. "Every time I hit it, they scream. They don't care if it was a good shot. Just the fact that I hit it was great to them.
"It made me think of how happy they are with so little. I just want them to know that they deserve a lot more."