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 Tightness of Sheehan's celebration.
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."
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 for bogey.
So it was a Pitfalls 'R' Us delegation that Sorenstam, Rob-bins 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 of chewy."
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 stillness.
"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.