Golf: Sheehan's tears turn to triumph: Liz Kahn reports on the American champion golfer eager to do battle with the best in the women's British Open at Woburn today

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UNTIL July, Patty Sheehan was remembered as the American with a great swing who wept on television after letting slide a nine- shot lead in the 1990 US Open. That was a bit hard on someone with a reasonable claim to be the best woman golfer in the world.

Sheehan, who is playing in the British Open, which starts at Woburn today, and the Solheim Cup at Dalmahoy next week, had an outstanding career of 28 victories - including two majors and more than pounds 1.77m in prize money - almost destroyed by her pursuit of America's top title.

The former junior skiing champion with a liking for plus-twos came joint second to Jan Stephenson in the 1983 Open, was second to Lotte Neumann in 1988, and the following year went into the final round tied with King only to score a 79. Then in 1990, Sheehan squandered a seemingly impregnable lead.

Dropping nine shots looks like carelessness on a grand scale, but the bald facts do not tell the story of a storm-swept Atlanta course and a final two rounds compressed into one day. Sheehan had barely half an hour to compose herself after a double bogey before starting the last round. The crown again went to King, with Sheehan's scorecard reading eight over par for the last 27 holes.

Sheehan tried to be positive about her failure. 'I figured I couldn't be any more devastated and disappointed than I was then,' she said, 'so everything was going to be better from there. And it was.' She realised she had put too much pressure on herself to win one title. 'I got in my own way.'

Now the 35-year-old Sheehan is the US Open champion, having won the title two months ago at Oakmont in a play-off against Juli Inkster. She now needs one more victory to make the Hall of Fame.

'Winning the Open was the greatest moment of my life on a golf course,' Sheehan said. Off it, the worst moment came when she lost her house and possessions in the California earthquake of 1989. Sheehan discovered that her expensive home in San Jose was not insured against earthquake damage and she responded by winning five tournaments and dollars 732,618 ( pounds 436,000) 'to pay the bills'.

What she did not win was the one that mattered, and while her home was soon rebuilt, the restoration of her confidence with a golf club was a delicate process. 'You have to overcome a lot of self-doubt,' she said, 'and bad memories going on in your own psyche that you create for yourself.'

Laura Davies, Britain's outstanding woman player, and Sheehan form a mutual admiration society. Since Davies once said 'Hello, mate', they now address each other as such. 'I have so much respect for Laura, I am in awe of her power. And she is so much fun to be around,' Sheehan said.

The quiet but assertive American feels indebted to Davies for her US Open victory. They have a regular pre-Open money match against Jane Geddes and Amy Benz, a contest they have lost for four years. 'Finally the mate and I won, and I decided it was a good omen.'

It was a title not easily won. Atlanta was on Sheehan's mind as in a lightning-delayed last round she had to resume play and birdie the final two holes to get into the play-off. Her fighting spirit saw her through. 'The golfing gods were with me,' she said.

Now Sheehan is broadening her experience of overseas courses at Woburn. 'The British Open is one of those things you hear about growing up and how wonderful it would be to win one,' she said. 'The only time I played here before was in the Curtis Cup 12 years ago.'

Looking forward to the Solheim Cup, Sheehan said: 'The Europeans are out for revenge. They've gained a lot of respect and experience in America. They're not afraid of us, and that's not a good sign for our team.'

(Photograph omitted)