Patty Sheehan : To LPGA's Money Leader, Golf Is Hard Work; She'd Much Rather Be Skiing

Times Staff Writer

Spring is here, another golf tournament is near, and LPGA money leader Patty Sheehan's thoughts turn to . . .

Horseback riding. Quiet evenings at home with a few friends. A game or two of racquetball, a few sets of tennis, a little pickup basketball.

Or skiing. There's always skiing. With her father, BoBo, a former U.S. Olympic ski coach, Sheehan grew up around the sport. And although she stopped hitting the slopes competitively at 13, when she ranked among the country's top juniors, Sheehan has yet to outgrow it.

"Skiing's always been my No. 1 love," she said Wednesday. "When I watched the (Winter) Olympics last year, I have to admit I had some twinges of envy."

How about that other thing, Patty? You know, the thing that pays the bills, makes headlines and has made Sheehan a national celebrity.

Golf.

Oh, that.

Sheehan would prefer not to think about it--at least not more than she absolutely has to. But put Sheehan on the back nine of the fourth round, with a tournament championship at stake and Nancy Lopez or Pat Bradley matching her stroke for stroke, and Sheehan will get down to business.

Sheehan's colleagues know her as one of the most intense players on the tour, and when it gets down to money time, Sheehan blocks out everything except go for the green.

All that matter then are the ball, the swing and an all-out assault on the flag.

But for Sheehan, there is no finer sight than watching that final putt of the final day drop into the 18th hole.

"When a tournament's over, it's a big relief," said Sheehan, who will return to the salt mines today for the opening round of the $330,000 Uniden Invitational at the Mesa Verde Country Club in Costa Mesa. "Then, I don't have to plan things. I can let loose a little bit, get away and think about other things."

To Sheehan, the word golf translates into another four-letter word: w-o-r-k. As in drudgery. Punch the clock. Earn your pay. A regular 9-to-5 gig.

When you turn out to walk in Sheehan's gallery, you half-expect to see her bag of clubs bearing a bumper sticker: I'd Rather Be Skiing.

If you ask Sheehan how the job's going, she'll come up with a few gripes, just like any working stiff.

"The travel grinds on me," she said, going down the list. "It's tough. It gets old after awhile.

"And you're always eating out. That really bothers me. Everything starts to taste the same. Everything you eat is loaded with salt and fat. It's tough to have a good diet when you're on the tour.

"Plus, you're not sleeping in your own bed. You're wearing the same clothes all the time. That gets to be boring."

Almost as boring as practice, to which Sheehan seems virtually allergic. She spends as little time on the course as possible. Between tournaments, Sheehan has no trouble finding better things to do.

She'll take two-week breaks from the tour to head up to Alpine Meadows or Squaw Valley, put on the skis and forget entirely about birdies and bogeys. Maybe, she'll play as many as 36 holes--and, if the mood strikes her, hit a bucket of balls--before her next tournament.

"I've seen where Lee Trevino has said that he considers himself and me a breed apart," Sheehan said. "We don't practice. With Lee, it's because of what his doctor tells him. With me, it's because I just don't want to.

"I like to get away from it. The more I think about golf, the more it wears me out."

Sheehan's non-work ethic is something of a legend on the LPGA circuit. The occasional sight of Sheehan on the practice tees, working out a hitch in her swing, is usually good for a few laughs among the other golfers.

"They'll joke with me," Sheehan said. "They'll see me on the range with more than one bucket of balls and they'll say, 'Oh, you're really getting serious about it.' "

Sheehan believes that those adherents to the practice-practice-practice regimen have got it all wrong.

"I think you can practice too much," she said. "You'll see golfers burn out by thinking too much. They forget the objective, which is putting the golf ball in the hole. They're more worried about having a pretty swing than with having one that works."

At best, golf was an acquired taste for Sheehan. She remembers when she was introduced to the game, at age 10.

"I hated it," she said. "I'd end up crying and throwing fits. Golf is so hard a game to learn, especially for a kid."

But Sheehan stuck with it, basically because, as she saw it, she had no other choice.

"My family all played," Sheehan said. "It was either tag along or be left alone. It was survival."

Sheehan much preferred white powder to white golf balls. She had grown up skiing the icy slopes of Vermont, spending her first 10 years on the East Coast. But then her father became manager of the Alpine Meadows Ski Area in Nevada, and the Sheehan family came West.

"I had no choice," Sheehan said.

She continued to ski but not with as much enjoyment. The snow out West was not as hard-packed as that in Vermont. Races were not run on time, as they were in Vermont.

"I got tired with the disorganization and the hassles," Sheehan said. So, at 13, she retired from competitive racing.

Sometimes, she regrets the decision. Even in Sheehan's early teens, the scouting reports said she was Olympic material.

"I think that if we had stayed in Vermont," Sheehan said, "I would have stayed with skiing."

But in golf, Sheehan admits, she "stumbled into something pretty big for myself. I can't be disappointed."

Not when, at 28, Sheehan's list of professional golf accomplishments includes:

--Twelve tournament victories, including the last two LPGA championships. In 1983 and 1984, she recorded consecutive four-win seasons.

--Nearly $1 million in earnings. Currently at $938,299, Sheehan could move to the brink this weekend.

--LPGA Rookie of the Year in 1981.

--LPGA Player of the Year in 1983.

Golf has been good to Sheehan. It has enabled her to become the head of her own corporation, Shillelagh, which organizes Sheehan's business affairs and has recently begun sponsoring a line of clothing for women's golfers.

"My title is chairman of the board," Sheehan said with a smile. "I get to sit at the head of the table and sleep."

Sheehan is more active in charitable functions. Her sponsorship of a house for abused and abandoned teen-age girls near San Jose has been much publicized. The house even bears her name-- Tigh Sheehan, Gaelic for House of Sheehan."

"These girls can tell you some horror stories," Sheehan said. "The house gives them a place where they can be with counselors and other kids who have been in the same situation. The ultimate goal is to get them back with their families--or, if not, find them a foster home."

Sheehan said she visits the house about eight times a year, when she cooks dinner for the girls, talks with them, basically keeps in touch.

The rest of the year, the girls of Tigh Sheehan follow Patty by watching television.

"Yeah, they watch me play," Sheehan said with a laugh. "They want to make sure I'm winning money."

That's one reason why Sheehan continues to pull on the spikes and tee it up. And while she's at it, she'd like to leave her mark--maybe win the U.S. Open, earn Player of the Year honors again, make the LPGA Hall of Fame.

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