WHEN WAS the last time you saw a woman of nearly 40 turn a
cartwheel? Not counting, of course, your mother when you finally
moved out of the house and Marcia Clark when she found out F.
Lee Bailey was in the slammer.
Patty Sheehan turned a cartwheel Sunday on the 18th green of the
Dinah Shore Tournament Course in Rancho Mirage, Calif. For one
giddy moment her spikes were topsy and her silver hair was
turvy, and the ducks at the Mission Hills Country Club stopped
panhandling to watch in admiration. The sight of unconfined joy
is rare enough that no one--not even the trio of disappointed
women golfers waiting by the green--questioned the rightness of
The cartwheel, Sheehan would say later, was suggested by her
mother. Moms, bless 'em, are optimistic. To Leslie Sheehan, the
fact that Patty had never won the Nabisco Dinah Shore, the
LPGA's first major championship of the year, meant that she was
due; there was room for a Shore trophy next to the five
major-championship cups on display in Patty's home in Reno.
Shore herself, two years before her death from cancer in 1994,
had had Sheehan to her house for dinner. Presenting the Hall of
Fame golfer with artwork in which she had depicted the 18th
green of what was then called the Old Course at Mission Hills,
Shore said, "This will give you luck someday, Mighty Mite."
Sheehan needed some luck to win the 25th Dinah Shore. On the
15th hole of the final round, after squandering a two-shot lead
with consecutive bogeys, she drove into a bunker, only to have
the ball pop back out on the grass. On the 18th, needing a par 5
for a final-round 281 and a one-stroke victory, she drove so
perilously close to the water on the left that her heart nearly
stopped; her ball, scooting between the lake and a cluster of
palms, rolled as true as a putt and came to rest less than a
club length from the red hazard line. Reflecting on her victory
afterward, Sheehan marveled at her ability to shoot a
one-under-par 71 despite five bogeys and four three-putt greens.
"That," she said, "should be enough to not win a tournament."
April 7, 1996
But as Sheehan's many pursuers knew, there are more ways to not
win than to win. Tracy Hanson came unwound on Sunday after
missing a short birdie putt on number 6 that would have given
her the outright lead. Long-hitting Kelly Robbins hooked her
drive into the eucalyptus trees on number 15 and made double
bogey, blunting a six-birdie charge that momentarily had her
leading at eight under. In fact seven players held or shared the
lead on Sunday. Meg Mallon, winner of two previous majors,
played the day's steadiest golf, but she missed birdie putts on
the last three holes. Annika Sorenstam, the reigning U.S.
Women's Open champ and the 1995 Player of the Year, carried a
one-shot lead to the 18th green but three-putted from the fringe
So it was a Pitfalls 'R' Us delegation that Sorenstam, Robbins
and Mallon formed by the bridge to the island green at number
18. "We were just chatting," Mallon said later. About luck?
About Sheehan's chances of bogeying 18, forcing a four-woman
playoff? About the cup on 18, which seemed to have been
sprinkled with ball repellent? About Brandie Burton's try for
birdie at 18, which might have made it a five-way playoff? "Meg
was eating some kind of protein bar," Robbins said. "It was kind
The whole week was chewy. What was hard to digest at this
silver-anniversary Dinah Shore was the demeanor gap between the
LPGA's established stars and the wunderkinder who are on the
brink of taking over the game. At Rancho Mirage you had the
exuberance of youth--the smiles, the bold body language, the joie
de vivre--and then you had the tight-lipped reserve they teach
over at the Wrinkle Academy. The odd thing was, the youngsters
were acting like old-timers, and vice versa. Sorenstam, 25, hung
around the lead for four rounds and rarely flexed an emotion;
she ground out pars and birdies with monotonously straight
drives and with approach shots as conservative as a Pat Buchanan
speech. Her apparent challenger for tour dominance, 21-year-old
Karrie Webb of Queensland, Australia, wore mirrored sunglasses
and played with such an economy of motion that one wondered if
she had picked up some desert creature's habit of protective
"When I was winning this tournament in '86, we didn't have
sunglasses to hide behind," LPGA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley said
on Saturday afternoon. "But I would pull my visor down as low as
I could. A lot is said through the eyes. Cover them up, and no
one knows if you're happy, sad, nervous or scared."
The LPGA's veterans, by way of contrast, seemed almost frothy.
Amy Alcott, who set the previous standard for effusiveness by
jumping into the moat on 18 after her Shore wins in '88 and '91,
shot a first-round 68 and then regaled the media with aphorisms,
Beatles lyrics and bawdy banter. (Asked if she planned a new
version of her instructional tape that plays endlessly on hotel
televisions, Alcott said, "Is that the X-rated one called
Swinging in the Nude?") Sheehan--who at age 35 celebrated her
first U.S. Women's Open title, in 1992, by dancing on the
putting green at Oakmont Country Club with the trophy lid
perched on her head--seemed almost as pleased with the 67 she
shot on Saturday. She smiled broadly and joked about putts that
hadn't fallen for 45 holes, and putts that had fallen in her
five-birdie back nine.
Need a visual? After Saturday's round, 19-year LPGA veteran
Martha Nause, one shot off the lead, smiled and made
self-deprecating jokes while effortlessly swatting drives
downrange. A few feet away 24-year-old coleader Burton beat
balls with a glum intensity that kept caddies and other players
at a distance.
Sheehan was probably in the best position to judge whether
youth, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, was being wasted on the tour's
youngsters. Paired with Sorenstam and Webb on Thursday and
Friday, Sheehan came away satisfied that her rivals' smoky
lenses did not conceal flinty eyes. "Yes, they may be quiet, but
they're very, very nice people," Sheehan said. She even
counseled Sorenstam, who was criticized for skipping the LPGA's
season-opening Tournament of Champions, to follow her instincts
instead of the herd. "The media and the public need to be more
forgiving of her," Sheehan said of the Swedish star, whose 67
last week tied her for the opening-round lead. "She'll come out
of her shell. You just have to wait and watch."
Sure enough, on Sunday Sorenstam provided glimpses of the
charmer she may yet become. She let her sunglasses ride atop her
cap. She pumped her arm and smiled to punctuate a lead-seizing
20-foot birdie putt on number 16. And when her 6-footer for par
on 18 rimmed out, she managed a stoic smile and hugged the
equally frustrated Mallon, who had just two-putted from eight
Sheehan, of course, is the master of the stoic smile--not to
mention the gracious smile, the forgiving smile, the smile of
relief and the ecstatic smile, all of which she got to use on
Sunday. Playing in the final group with Burton and Nause,
Sheehan birdied the first hole, thrilling her vocal fans--"Go,
Patty!"--and starting dominos falling. She would make only seven
pars for the round, and later she would insist that she had
enjoyed herself thoroughly.
But then this is the woman who cried uncontrollably after
blowing a nine-shot lead in the 1990 U.S. Women's Open and
bounced back with two more tour wins before the season ended;
the woman who in '92 birdied the final two holes at Oakmont,
after a rain delay, to force the playoff she won against Juli
Inkster; the woman who has a 14-year-old carton of misprinted
balloons proudly advertising the patty sheehan fun club; the
woman who lost everything in the '89 San Francisco earthquake
and has won nearly everything since. At home in Reno she has a
ceramic jar filled with good-luck coins that she has picked up
off floors and pavements. Before Sunday's round, Sheehan's
caddie, Carl Laib, showed her a battered penny he had found the
night before--face up, as required by Sheehan--at a Palm Springs
joint called The Truck Stop. Laib carried the penny in his
pocket all day.
There was, as well, a little magic in the clubs Laib lugged
around the desert. Early in the week Sheehan had the graphite
shafts pulled out of her Big Bertha irons--her sixth shaft change
of the year--and went back to steel, with which she had won 34
LPGA events. "I couldn't feel what I was doing with graphite,"
she said. "I needed a bit more vibration in the shaft." But it
was steel's vibration that had given her career-threatening
tendinitis in both elbows. Her dilemma: Graphite relieves the
tendinitis, but steel relieves the pain of slipping down the
money list. (She finished 13th and 14th the last two years,
after 12 years in the top 10.)
So, yes, there was a little luck, superstition, technology and
just plain silliness involved in Sheehan's Dinah Shore win. She
walked across the bridge to the 18th green not knowing if she
was going to laugh or bawl before she walked back. Her third
shot, a wicked pull from a fairway bunker 116 yards out, had
left her with what she called "a monster putt": a hundred feet,
according to the TV folks, a few feet more if you distrust round
numbers. Later Sheehan would say, "I never dreamed I would have
to do that to win the Dinah Shore"--that is, two-putt the horizon.
She could have squeezed in a daydream in the time it took her
lag putt to mosey up toward the hole. Sheehan judged her second
putt to be about 10 feet--it looked more like eight--but the three
ladies in waiting never allowed themselves to hope that she
would miss. As Sheehan settled over the ball, Sorenstam
whispered to her fiance, "It's going in."
Was it ever. Sheehan wheeled around to celebrate when the ball
was still a foot from the cup. By the time it found the heart,
Sheehan's fans were screaming and bouncing like excited
children. "What an awesome two-putt," said Robbins. "But if
anybody's going to do it, Patty's going to do it."
Three hours later, after icing her right elbow and downing a
couple of cranberry-juice-and-vodka cocktails, Sheehan slipped
into the winner's white bathrobe and walked back down to the
18th green. With the moon out and the last light of day coating
the San Jacinto Mountains with pink frosting, she stepped off
her monster putt. The first estimate was 90 feet. Her second
hike made it 102 feet. Then she autographed champagne glasses
for a few friends and well-wishers--the bubbly signing the
bubbly, so to speak.
"All right, I'll give you an exclusive," she told a lingering
journalist. "My goal is to repeat."
If she meant "win again"--sure, fine. But if she meant "win
again, this tournament, this way"--no way. Grandmothers will turn
somersaults before that happens.