Pat Bradley first became aware of “the Stare” last year at the $450,000 Nabisco Dinah Shore tournament. Twenty-five-year old upstart Val Skinner was chipping away at Bradley’s lead in the final round, birdying three of the last four holes. “Skinner knocked it up within inches of the cup on 17, and the crowd went wild,” says Bradley. “When most players hear the gallery erupt like that, you can see some reaction—they roll their eyes or their head will drop. I just went up to the tee and knocked it within 10 feet of the hole. It wasn’t until two days after I won the tournament that I finally broke down and felt the emotion.”
The Stare, you see, is a trance-like state, a zone of concentration so intense and consuming that Bradley, 36, hadn’t even known it was there. Casual fans might not notice it either, hidden beneath her sunshade, a look of laser-like fierceness as she turns her attention to those decisive back nines. Until last year, though Bradley had won three major championships, she had been a tournament runner-up 43 times, making her either a model of consistency or, as some would have it, a choker. Then the 1986 version of the Stare helped her win three of the four majors on the LPGA tour as well as two lesser events on the side. She won more money in one year ($492,021) than any woman player ever, pushing her lifetime winnings above $2 million—a benchmark she shares only with JoAnne Carner. Naturally no one was more pleased with her Year of Winning Lavishly than the 13-year veteran herself. “I think a lot of people were wondering when it was going to happen,” says Bradley, who must have wondered herself.
This week she will defend her LPGA Championship at Kings Island, Ohio, and there are signs that the Stare is about to kick in. She won her first tournament this year a week earlier than she did in 1986, and she nearly forced a three-way playoff in last month’s Dinah Shore, coming up one birdie short. She had proved what she had to prove last year, only to raise the question: Could she do it again? “All eyes were on me,” she says, “especially those of my peers. When I won that first one, it gave me my confidence.”
Despite her record and the promise of good things to come, the self-assured Massachusetts native is, like most athletes, wary of provoking the golf gods. “Thirteen is my lucky number because everyone else hates it,” says Bradley with a laugh. “Whenever I played sports like basketball or field hockey as a kid, my number was 13. Now I only play with balls marked 1 and 3, and of course I had my best year in my 13th season. But I’ve got to tell you: I was playing in England a few years ago and my mom bought me this cute skirt with shamrocks on it for good luck, right? I wore it when I was playing, shot an 81, walked into my hotel room and threw it in the wastebasket. The next day, I shot a 71.”
Pat and her five brothers grew up in Westford, Mass., where their parents, Richard and Kathleen, owned a sports shop. She was a talented skier, but her father saw golf “as a ladies’ and gentlemen’s game” and wanted his kids to concentrate on that. Pat began swinging a golf club at age 11 and was breaking 80 only five years later. She says her disciplinarian father was the one who kept her eye on the ball. She appreciates it now, but not without a trace of resentment. “When I would play badly, Mom would give me the shoulder to cry on, but Daddy would tell me to pick myself up and dig in,” she remembers. “That’s great, but when you’re a kid you need a little bit more of ‘Hey, it’ll be okay.’ ”
Bradley went South to attend college, graduating from Florida International University in 1974. She turned pro six months earlier when her brother Tom and 12 other farsighted investors put up the cash to pay her way on the tour. She won her first official tournament two years later.
Today she has paid back her brother and the others many times over. Unmarried, she skis when she can and spends the rest of the off-season comfortably in her three-bedroom condo on Marco Island in Florida, where her neighbors include former PGA stars Ken Venturi and Gene Sarazen. “If something happened to me tomorrow,” says Bradley, mindful perhaps of fellow pro Jan Stephenson’s recent car accident during a tournament, “I would be satisfied with what I’ve done.” Then again, maybe she wouldn’t. “The Hall of Fame keeps me motivated now,” she says. “I need eight more wins to reach 30 and I’m in. It’s not impossible.” No worries. All she has to do is pull down that sunshade and follow the Stare.