Last Saturday evening Patty Sheehan's share of the lead at the U.S. Women's Open, like a broken spring in a mattress, was making her squirm. "The golf demons always play havoc with my brain at night," Sheehan said the night before the final round at the Oakmont Country Club, near Pittsburgh. Three times in nine years she had finished second in the LPGA's most prestigious event—most notably two years ago in Duluth, Ga., where she squandered a nine-stroke lead on the final 36 holes to Betsy King in one of the more horrific free-falls in memory. "It's probably a lot easier to play tied for the lead than with a nine-shot lead," Sheehan said on Saturday.
If there were any demons still haunting Sheehan, 35, she finally exorcised them in an 18-hole playoff on Monday with an emphatic two-stroke victory over close friend Juli Inkster on the rain-soaked Oakmont course. The Open was Sheehan's third major title in her 12-year career, raising her total of tour wins to 29—one short of the number she needs to earn a berth in the LPGA Hall of Fame. The victory's significance to Sheehan, however, seemed more spiritual than numerical.
"I can't put into words how happy I am that I've gotten this major monkey off my back," she told reporters, noting her 1990 Open crack-up. Then came tears, her voice trembling: "Two years ago, it was tears of sadness. Now it's tears of joy."
Monday's playoff, in itself, did not generate much emotion. Sheehan birdied the opening hole but then scrambled to a one-over-par 72, missing all but one green on the back side. Inkster spoiled a solid ball-striking round by putting wretchedly; she was five strokes back with two holes to play. No, it was the five days of warfare amid venerable Oakmont's 167 bunkers that left both women teary-eyed at the end. Sheehan described the week as "grueling, the toughest tournament ever." Inkster, winner of three majors—but never the Open—called the loss the biggest disappointment of her 10-year career.
Whether or not Oakmont, six-time site of the men's Open, played to its advertised fierceness is a matter for debate. Sheehan said no; the heavy rains that had disrupted play on Thursday and Friday softened and slowed the greens enough to take the terror out of them in the later rounds. The trade-off was that the fairways were like sponges, making Oakmont—at 6,312 yards the second-longest course in U.S. Women's Open history—play even longer. The 1st and 10th holes, both par 4s, were unreachable in two for most of the field, and players who favored run-up shots had no chance. The 36-hole cut claimed such unexpected victims as Danielle Ammaccapane, Colleen Walker, Beth Daniel and Ayako Okamoto, all among the top money winners this year.
The survivors of the cut were mostly long-hitters and "fliers"—so called because, like Inkster, they can launch the ball high and stop it on a dime, hopefully near the pin. One long-distance flier was Michelle McGann of Riviera Beach, Fla., the LPGA's Dalyesque driving-distance leader with an average of 251.1 yards. She was one of only three players to break par on Saturday; she finished tied for seventh.
Besides Sheehan and Inkster, who ended regulation at four-under 280, the only player to par the four rounds was four-year pro Donna Andrews. Unfortunately, Andrews turned a first-round 67 into a 69 when she accidentally nudged the ball with her putter on number 17 while lining up her shot, then failed to replace the ball in its original spot—a two-shot penalty. "I was distracted, not thinking," said Andrews. She finished third, at even par.
No one, though, really threatened Inkster and Sheehan once they made the turn on Saturday, which ended with the two players tied at 211, two under par. Sheehan versus Anybody would have been intriguing, but Inkster's presence added an emotional complexity to the head-to-head battle. The two women are longtime friends, former teammates at San Jose State and amateur competitors before that. When Sheehan's house was destroyed in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, Inkster, who lives in nearby Los Altos, took her in. "It's hard," Inkster admitted. "She wants to win it and I want to win it, but we still want to be friends."
Sunday's Shoot-out at Soakmont began with Inkster making three birds on the front side and leading by three at the turn. But Sheehan dropped a rainbow putt for birdie at number 10 and Inkster bogeyed, slicing the lead to one. Still, Inkster, after Sheehan's bogey at 12, led by two when the weather-warning horn went off, just after they hit their drives from the 17th tee. Inkster recoiled at the sound—perhaps sensing that it boded ill for her. Sheehan's small talk minutes later didn't help. "Funny things can happen, Juli," Sheehan said during the rain delay. It was a joking remark, accompanied by a hug, but Sheehan said later, "I believed it."
When play resumed after a one-hour-and-45-minute delay, the sun, elusive throughout the week, bathed the 17th in a golden glow. Sheehan and Inkster both wedged up inside 12 feet, but Inkster's birdie try lipped out and Sheehan's putt fell, leaving the pair separated by one. Sheehan then birdied the long, wet par-4 18th with a drive, a five-iron and a pressure putt. Her only thought, as she stood over the 18-footer that would force a playoff, was, "Get the damned thing to the hole." When the ball dropped, the grandstands shook with approval. "Damn, it was unbelievable!" she later said. "I can't believe I did it, actually."
Monday's playoff, as is usually the case, was a curtain call with half the audience gone and the roses wilting. After Sheehan's opening birdie, it was a tale of two putters—Sheehan's hot and Inkster's not. Inkster missed par putts of two and three feet on the back side. Sheehan, meanwhile, had eight one-putt greens and only 28 putts for the round. Inkster, who needed 35 putts for the day, said, "I don't think she's ever had a better putting round."
The steadiness of Sheehan's stroke was impressive, considering that on Sunday night she had not been able to quiet her mind. "I probably played the 18th-hole putt a thousand times in my head," she said. "It was like a rerun, a miniclip going whir, whir, whir." No demons this time, just the rush of adrenaline.
On Monday morning she was so eager that she showed up at Oakmont without her golf clubs. ("I just thank all the cops for not picking me up," she later said of her hour-long race to retrieve them.) Though Sheehan finished the round bogey-bogey, Oakmont was no replay of Duluth. With a five-shot lead and two holes to play, she needed only to cat's-paw it home, and she did that with ease. Indeed, the memory of '90 seemed to have rendered her numb to another calamity. "I knew that no matter how many Opens I blew, they wouldn't be as disappointing as that one," she explained.
"I can now think of this one," she said, "and smile and rejoice."