Her last six tournaments, Patty Sheehan has finished: 2, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2. The word "hot" doesn't do her streak justice, this is Chernobyl. Simply considering earnings from those six tournaments -- nudging $325,000 -- Sheehan would be fourth on the LPGA money list. Add in the money from her other tournaments (she has three victories and eight top two finishes), and Sheehan is over $490,000 for the year. No other female golfer is within a Jumbo CD of her. Which is why Beth Daniel, a distant second on that list, says, "When you say 'Patty Sheehan' to me, I don't think, 'Oh God, she's the one who lost the Open.' I think 'Patty Sheehan, she's having a great year.' "
But say "Patty Sheehan" to everyone else, and they don't think about what a great year she's having -- they don't know much about the LPGA unless they spend a load of time watching cable. Probably all they know about Sheehan, they learned two weeks ago from watching a news clip of her weeping after surrendering her cushy five-stroke lead with 18 holes left in the U.S. Women's Open in Duluth, Ga. You rarely see professional athletes cry on national TV. Mike Schmidt. Patty Sheehan. You tend to remember.
Miserable weather the week of the Open compelled the players to go 36 holes on Sunday. The mood was so hurry-scurry, pin placements weren't changed between the third and fourth rounds, a serious breach of tradition. "It was a matter of getting the tournament done," said Pat Bradley, still annoyed. "The game of golf got lost in the shuffle. It was a lousy week for all of us, but for Patty it was magnified 10 times more because of what she lost."
Sheehan shot 66-68 her first two rounds, which she called "the best golf of my life." But because of rain delays and postponements, she wound up playing 51 holes in 29 hours. Sheehan was on the course for 15 holes on Saturday, completing her second round, while the eventual winner, Betsy King, had the day off. (This is the second straight year Sheehan lost the Open to King. Last year the women were tied after 54 holes, and Sheehan ballooned to 79 the final round.) Sheehan was so physically and mentally drained on Sunday, her caddie thought she might faint. She finished 76-75, and as the cameras rolled she broke down, unable to hide her feelings of devastation. "I gave it everything I had, and I had nothing left," she said.
An hour or two later, an embarrassed Sheehan began "to feel kind of stupid" she'd "cried on national TV." But now, admittedly overwhelmed by an outpouring of empathy from viewers -- there were 50 letters piled up for her at the Bethesda Country Club, where the LPGA Championship is being played this week, and she's received hundreds more the last two weeks -- Sheehan feels that she's gained more fans by losing the Open than she might have by winning it.
It has been that kind of silver-lining year for Sheehan. Last October, her home in Santa Cruz, Calif., was destroyed by the earthquake. All her trophies were lost. She had no insurance. Yet she calls it "the best thing that ever happened" to her, saying it brought her to appreciate how precious life and family are. By consequently minimizing the importance of golf in her life, she's had her most successful golfing year. Last weekend in Ohio, mere days after her excruciating loss in the Open, Sheehan lost a playoff to Daniel. While some would see a black cloud of jinx hovering, Sheehan was uplifted by her performance. She'd made up four strokes to tie Daniel in a tournament she'd rather have skipped, owing to her post-Open depression. "It was extremely difficult to tee it up," she said. "I'm very proud of the way I played."
Recent events have left Sheehan "exhausted" for the LPGA Championship: "I feel like I'm brain dead, I'm on automatic." But she will surely be one of the sentimental favorites here. Naturally, her unraveling at the Open is the prime topic of conversation everywhere she goes. (On the men's tour the prime topic ought to be the indefensible decision to keep their PGA Championship at the segregated Shoal Creek Club in Birmingham. A private club that gets no tax break from the government may have the constitutional right to define its membership, but the PGA -- which asks for the public trust -- shouldn't reward racial exclusion by placing one of its lucrative major championships there. Either the PGA knew the club was whites-only, and doesn't mind, which is incredibly offensive. Or it never bothered to check, which is monumentally stupid. IBM, Toyota and Anheuser-Busch were correct to lift their advertising from the tournament. The PGA should immediately disassociate itself from Shoal Creek and bundle the tournament off to somewhere else.) To Sheehan's credit, she doesn't try to minimize the pain or revise the history. Earlier this week Sheehan's voice cracked as she recapitulated that traumatic Sunday. King made up 11 strokes in 33 holes, but Sheehan knows the Open wasn't won as much as it was lost. "Betsy King may say she felt she won the tournament, but it was mine to win or lose," she said.
All the great players, men and women, have blown tournaments. Since Sheehan has already won two majors -- LPGA Championships 1983 and 1984 -- she isn't subjected to whispers about her game or character. But this was a brutal, public collapse, "the kind that can destroy a career if you let it," Sheehan conceded. "I still think about it. It tumbles around in my brain. I need to let it tumble until I get it out. Emotionally, I need to talk about it. Healthwise, talking about it is probably part of the healing process."