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Here comes Patty Sheehan striding into 1984, jaw out, arms swinging, living reproof to all those who say things like "good athlete for a woman." Sheehan is a fine athlete, period. And much more. She was the Ladies Professional Golf Association Player of the Year for 1983 and at week's end ranked third on the money list for '84. She plans to blaze right into the LPGA Hall of Fame, setting eye-popping records—and stepping on a few toes, if necessary—along the way. At 27 she is a fierce competitor of independent ways. Her Dodge Charger once sported the slogan WOMEN WHO SEEK EQUALITY WITH MEN LACK AMBITION. But she can be a real softy, too, touching people in special ways.
Though Sheehan lives in Los Gatos, Calif., she's anything but a sun-kissed golden girl. She was born in Middlebury, Vt., the daughter of a coach-of-all-trades, Bobo Sheehan, who learned of her arrival by means of a P.A. bulletin at halftime of a Middlebury College football game: "Here's a final: Patricia Sheehan, 0seven pounds, 15 ounces." At Middlebury, Bobo coached football, baseball, golf and skiing, and he was the U.S. Olympic men's Alpine ski coach in 1956. Patty's mother, Leslie, a multisport athlete herself, is also handy with needle and thread, and it was her task to keep the uniforms in shape. "Head crotch-stitcher," she used to call herself.
Patty grew up in an athletic environment, the little sister trying to play up to the level of her three older brothers. Today she's the one who is at an enviable level, and she's there because she embodies the New England ideals of tenacity and self-reliance. Back in her amateur days, when she could powder the ball but barely control it, she played an exhibition with Lee Trevino. On the first hole she outdrove him. On the next hole she did it again. JoAnne Carner spotted the feisty Sheehan when she first showed up on the LPGA Tour in July 1980. "Patty's going to be so good it's scary," said Big Momma. Says Sheehan's agent, Margaret Leonard, "If I was out there playing, I'd really be afraid of her." Leonard, whom Sheehan met while both were college golfers, handles her business affairs, and Clare Sheils, once the publicist for the entire LPGA Tour, has hitched herself to Sheehan's star and now handles her p.r. Leonard and Sheils have persuaded Sheehan to turn down the $5,000 a day that she could earn in corporate pro-ams and concentrate on winning tournaments. "Patty's a golfer," says Sheils. "That's what she does. We don't want to mess up her place in history. The record book is what people remember."
Sheehan can be great fun—"a leprechaun," says Leonard. After winning her first tournament, the '81 Mazda Classic, Sheehan turned a somersault on the 18th green. After another victory she doused a tournament sponsor with champagne. And after winning the 1983 Corning (N.Y.) Classic, a tournament she had fumbled away the previous two years, she fell to the ground and blew kisses to the crowd. On the side she sings with the Unplayable Lies, the tour's unofficial musical group, which includes Vivian Brownlee, Mary Dwyer and Debbie Massey, among others.
Sheehan also has the most diverse and doggedly good-natured fans on the tour. They wear hats, pins and signs proclaiming their allegiance to Sheehan's Irish Mafia and have a propensity for loud cheering. Many are former students or athletes dating from Bobo's coaching days at Middlebury. "Everywhere I go, people want to know, 'How's Bobo?' " says Sheehan.
"I still have doubts," she says. "I look back and think, 'How did I do it? Can I do it again?' I get most of my doubts when I'm off the tour. When I'm out there playing, I'm pretty positive." Says Sheils, "We admire her mental toughness as much as her physical ability. With most people, it's the mental toughness that goes first. With Patty, it'll be just the opposite."
"We're keeping her naive and young so she doesn't get a big head," says Leonard. "It's all part of the image. The minute she complains, I get all over her. She's not a prima donna."
But what an athlete she is. In New England she had been a superb skier. The family moved to Nevada in 1967, when she was 11, and she continued to excel at skiing. At 13 she took up golf and won four straight Nevada and two straight California state amateur championships. She won the AIAW championship in her final year of college at San Jose State, went undefeated in Curtis Cup play, then turned pro and won the LPGA qualifying-school tournament by six strokes. She was named Rookie of the Year in 1981. In '82 she socked away $225,000, winning three titles and Golf Digest's Most Improved Player trophy, before tearing up '83 with $250,399 and four victories, including the LPGA Championship, in which she nailed five straight birdies in the final round and sent the Irish Mafia into orbit.
Sheehan could be the second coming of Babe Zaharias. She is at the top in golf. She can still carve a nice route down a ski slope. She picks up a bowling ball once a year and rolls a 200 game. She knows her way around in basketball and softball, and an astounded teaching pro who watched her play a little tennis pronounced her raw material for the circuit. "I'd like to find something, just one thing, that she'd be a klutz at," says Leonard.
Sheehan plays instinctively, without dwelling on mechanics. She simply attacks a golf course, while others study angles and impact zones. Sheehan strolls through golf oblivious of the possibilities for disaster. "I like to hit it," she says.