October 23, 2000 12:00 PM

In the time-honored tradition of country crooners, Garth Brooks wears his heart on his sleeve. After his wife, Sandy, discovered he was cheating on her back in 1989 and threatened to leave him, Brooks famously got so choked up onstage in Sikeston, Mo., that he had to restart a song. They reconciled and in 1996 renewed their wedding vows at a Methodist church in suburban Nashville. But by last January it was clear to all who watched the American Music Awards that the couple weren’t out of the woods. “Sandy,” Brooks told his wife—and some 10 million viewers—during an acceptance speech for one of his three trophies, “it’s no mystery that our future…we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Now they have a better idea. In an interview for the Oct. 14 issue of Billboard magazine, Brooks, 37, announced that after 14 rocky years of marriage he and Sandy, 35, had decided to divorce. “Right now, we’re focusing on the impact it will have on the children and how to handle that,” said the singer. (The pair have three daughters: Taylor, 8, August, 6, and Allie, 4.) “[We want] to remain parents, even if we don’t remain husband and wife.”

Given the very public airing of their marital woes, few in the country-music world were startled by the split. Says author Bruce Feiler, who profiled Brooks for a 1998 book on the country-music industry, Dreaming Out Loud: “Garth’s marriage has been on the brink of falling apart ever since he has been professionally successful.” Among the pressures that pushed it over, Brooks told Billboard, were the death last August of his mother, Colleen Brooks, 70 (father Troyal, 69, lives in Yukon, Okla.), “compiled with coming off-tour for the first time in 11 years, compiled with coming home to a woman, where you two seem to get along better when you’re apart.”

Persistent tabloid rumors romantically linking Brooks with his friend and sometime duet partner Trisha Yearwood couldn’t have helped. When asked about the rumors, Yearwood, 36, who was divorced from her second husband, Mavericks bassist Robert Reynolds, last year, told Country Weekly magazine in May, “There are parts of my life I want to keep private, and I know my fans will understand.” Regardless of the reasons for their split, “if there is a divorce,” says Sandy’s father, John Mahl, his daughter and Brooks “will be the best of friends.”

The pair first met in 1983 when Brooks, a student at Oklahoma State University and part-time bouncer, was called to the women’s room at the Tumbleweeds Club in Stillwater, Okla., to break up a brawl. There he found 19-year-old freshman Sandy Mahl with her fist lodged in a wood-paneled wall and offered to drive her home. A romance blossomed, and they wed in 1986. “They made a great team,” says Brooks’s friend and video director Jon Small. “At their wedding I watched them two-step together, and it blew me away.”

In May 1987, the couple moved to Nashville, where Sandy worked three jobs and persuaded Brooks to tough it out when he wanted to go home. Before long he was spotted singing in a nightclub by a Capitol Records talent agent. With the whirl of fame came other women. “Responsibility, commitment,” Brooks admitted to PEOPLE in 1991, “was not my game.” Still, the couple tried for years to make their marriage work. Finally, last December, Brooks announced that he would take a year off—and possibly retire—with that express purpose. “Sandy and my relationship deserves the time,” he said backstage at the American Music Awards. “We’re trying real hard.”

In the end, it wasn’t enough. Yet despite the split, the family seems to be holding together: Just last week they all dined with Sandy’s parents in Collinsville, Okla. For now, Brooks is dividing his time between his native Tulsa, where he is building a new home, and Nashville, where the gates of his 7,000-sq.-ft. mansion have become a Graceland-like stop for fans. News of the pending divorce is unlikely to deter them. “Garth likes to think of himself as a righteous person,” says author Feiler, “but the public always liked him because he was flawed.” With plans for a new album, and a party in Los Angeles on Oct. 26 to celebrate his record-breaking 100 million album sales, it indeed appears that Brooks is back in business. “Out of the ashes of Garth’s personal life is rising this renewed focus on his career,” says Neil Pond, editor of Country Weekly magazine. “It looks like he’s finally ready to get down to the business of being Garth Brooks.”

Anne-Marie O’Neill

Beverly Keel in Nashville, Kelly Williams in Chicago and Bob Stewart in San Antonio

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