It is a tribute of a person’s fortitude that she is at her best when life seems at its worst. That, then, says it all about Patty Sheehan, who has twice answered adversity with achievement, and who has proven that heart and courage mean as much in golf as talent. When you grow up as a downhill skier, you learn how to pick yourself up, and that’s what Sheehan has done.
In 1989, Sheehan lost her house, her trophies and nearly all of her life savings in the San Francisco earthquake. She came back the next year to win five tournaments and more than $732,000. Nearly all of that money went to pay bills, but it was the tournament she lost in 1990 that represented as much potential devastation to her career as the earthquake did to her financial security.
The U.S. Women’s Open was played at the Atlanta Athletic Club. Sheehan had an 11-stroke lead in the third round and ended up losing it all to Betsy King. As Sheehan later said, “I had owned the Open. It was in my hands. I could break a leg and still shoot well enough to win, but I hadn’t been able to do it.”
"I saw myself as a winner from a very young age. I played with boys all my life, and I seemed to be their equal, if not better. I never thought of myself as anything less than a winner. To be successful, you need drive, determination and a belief in yourself, and some kind of peacefulness about what you're doing."
Two years later, Sheehan came to Oakmont C.C. after two consecutive victories. She birdied the 71st and 72nd holes, then went on to defeat Juli Inkster in a playoff. She won the Open again in 1994, but the victory in 1992 at Oakmont was her crowning achievement.
“It was such a great comeback from 1990, and emotionally it healed so many wounds,” Sheehan told writer Liz Kahn. “It was the most significant win of my career because I overcame so much doubt. It would have been very hard to live the rest of my life without winning an Open. Now I feel I’m on vacation from adversity and that 1992 Open victory made me a different person-much happier and more content. If I never win another tournament, I’m still complete because that was the one I wanted.”
Sheehan grew up in Middlebury, Vt., and Lake Tahoe, Nev. Her father, Bobo, was a college ski coach in Vermont and also an Olympic ski coach. As the only girl in the family, Sheehan learned how to compete to survive. She was as good a football player as her three brothers, and at 13, Sheehan was ranked the No. 1 downhill skier for her age in the country. Golf was a secondary sport until Sheehan reached age 18, when her handicap was down to scratch and the University of Nevada-Reno offered her a scholarship.
As an amateur, Sheehan won state titles in Nevada and California, the AIAW National Championship for San Jose State, and was runner-up in the 1979 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship. She was undefeated on the 1980 Curtis Cup team and earned Rookie of the Year honors on the LPGA Tour in 1981.
Patty Sheehan was one of the Olympic torchbearers for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“I was always very competitive,” Sheehan said. “I saw myself as a winner from a very young age. I played with boys all my life, and I seemed to be their equal, if not better. I never thought of myself as anything less than a winner. To be successful, you need drive, determination and a belief in yourself, and some kind of peacefulness about what you’re doing.”
That attitude resulted in one of the most successful careers in LPGA history. Through the 2003 season, she had won 35 tournaments, including the two Opens, three LPGA Championships and a Dinah Shore. In 1995, she qualified for the Hall of Fame with a win at the SAFECO Classic. “I feel inside I should be there because I stepped up and achieved that level and there’s a place for me beside those greats,” Sheehan said. “I’m not bragging. I just feel that way.”