Twenty years ago, during a five-hour drive between LPGA Tour stops, Muffin Spencer-Devlin discussed her deepest secret.
She shared her intimate feelings. She talked about her fears. Both were about her being gay.
This didn’t surprise me. Everyone on the LPGA Tour knew Spencer-Devlin’s sexual orientation.
She would tell the world three years later.
Spencer-Devlin’s courageous coming out had been a lost memory for many until NBA player Jason Collins came out this week. She called Collins’ declaration “significant.”
“It takes a lot to come out,” Spencer-Devlin said this week from her home in Laguna Beach, Calif. “Each time one of us does it, it makes it easier for someone else to come out.”
And it wasn’t easy for Spencer-Devlin, the winner of three LPGA titles.
She said she struggled with the decision for more than 20 years before doing the March 1996 story with Sports Illustrated similar to Collins’. She was 42. She still wanted to win golf tournaments. But she says she didn’t have the backing of the LPGA Tour to come out earlier.
She said the LPGA Tour was homophobic at the time and it feared sponsors would disappear.
“They said, ‘No, don’t do it,’” Spencer-Devlin recalled.
The lack of support actually ignited her with more inspiration -- but it also increased her fears.
“I do like to think of myself as a rebel,” said Spencer-Devlin, who is never at a loss for words and had a reputation for being free spirited. “But I didn’t want to poop in my own house.”
Spencer-Devlin did worry about the sponsors. She sent Christmas cards to all of the tournament sponsors explaining her decision before the article was published. She spoke directly to her two individual sponsors, Callaway golf and Met-Rx, a nutritional supplement company. She said she got nothing but positive feedback from them.
“They said ‘We want you for your golf game and not for who you sleep with,’” said Spencer-Devlin, who will be 60 in October.
Spencer-Devlin didn’t make a rash decision about coming out to the world. She spoke to tennis players Martina Navratilova, the first professional athlete to come out, and Billie Jean King, who was outed by the media.
Spencer-Devlin said both tennis greats advised her to come out for the right reasons.
“They both asked me about my motivations,” she said. “They said, ‘Do it for how you feel inside and not for what it might look like on the outside.’”
Spencer-Devlin never won the Dinah Shore, where the winner jumps into the murky green-side lake. But she took a similar plunge by coming out.
At the time, she was only the second active professional athlete to say publicly she was gay. This was pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, pre-smartphone 1996. Unlike Collins this week, Spencer-Devlin didn’t have a swell of supporters.
The SI article came out right before the LPGA tournament in Tucson and she said she didn’t receive a warm reception from her fellow players in the locker room.
“There were about six straight players who came up to me and praised me, but no gay players said a thing,” Spencer-Devlin said. “They were afraid.”
During our drive from Tucson to Palm Springs back in 1993, the discussion turned to: “How many LPGA players are gay?” At the time, many outsiders thought the entire tour was gay. So Spencer-Devlin pulled out a media guide and started putting marks by players’ names she believed were gay. There were some question marks. She estimated that about 30 percent of the tour was gay.
Many years later other LPGA players, Patty Sheehan and Rosie Jones, came out about their sexuality. Spencer-Devlin didn’t expect a wave of players to join her in gaining public sexuality freedom. She doesn’t expect there to be a wave of team sport players to come out after Collins' announcement.
“It’s a big deal,” she said of Collins’ talking publicly about being gay. “But not every gay player will be coming out. Each person will have to battle the reasons of why he or she stays in or comes out of the closet. It’s all about you ... the individual.”
As Spencer-Devlin takes some personal pride in being one of the athletes that blazed the trail to make it easier for Collins to embrace his sexuality, she can’t wait for the day when these announcements don’t create headlines.
“That will be the cool time,” said Spencer-Devlin, who is retired from golf and works as an artist creating glass sculptures. “When no one makes a big deal about whether someone is gay or not; that will make me happy.”
Tom Hanson is the managing sports editor at the Daily News and caddied on the LPGA Tour for several years.