By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Golf is a game of etiquette and decorum: Respect the rules. Respect the course. Respect your playing partners.
But when you play a casual round with Muffin Spencer-Devlin, a tall and sleek 59-year-old, on her home track at the nine-hole Aliso Creek Golf Course in Laguna Beach, you're in Muffin territory. Hit a bad tee shot, and she offers you a Kotex. Miss a short putt, and she meows. She offers nonstop advice to complete strangers.
Meanwhile, the former pro drives every ball as though she's shooting an arrow from a bow. Spencer-Devlin displays a masterful putting touch. She rarely fluffs shots. And all the while, she's recounting tales about her years on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour: throwing wedges into the woods, blowing the last hole in the women's British Open, the fines she received for conduct unbecoming to the game.
You ought to despise the chattering magpie. Yet she displays such an infectious energy, disarming wit and joie de vivre that, by the end of the round, people who've never met her are beaming, hugging her, thanking her for one of the most enjoyable rounds of their lives.
"I can't help it," she says. "Up, down, whatever. I can't fucking stop talking."
She's putting it lightly. Before the Sports Illustrated article that rocked the sports world, before becoming a rallying point for gays and lesbians, before the $1 million she won on the LPGA Tour, before she blew every dime of that money, before the manic episodes and weeklong blackouts, before the crushing depression and mental agony, before the straitjackets and arrests, before the self-medication and burned bridges, before shaping a new life as a glass blower, Muffin Spencer-Devlin was just a girl.
A girl who knew that a long time before, she'd been King Arthur.
What does the head of the Knights of the Round Table have to do with a three-time winner on the LPGA Tour, current Laguna Beach artisan, and former poster child for outed professional athletes and victims of bipolar disorder? Well, nothing—and also everything. Just as she's lived a most non-ordinary life an an adult, she wasn't your typical kid swept up in the romantic allure of being a legendary figure. By fourth grade, she was absolutely convinced. That belief was affirmed for her years later when she studied reincarnation and past lives.
"Yep, I was King Arthur in a past life," she says. "You want to commit me? Go ahead."
Spencer-Devlin wasn't reticent about talking about her past life as King Arthur—or about anything else—during her 20-year stretch on the LPGA Tour. It was just one of the many idiosyncracies that endeared her to a media that, despite her volatile unpredictability, carried on a quasi-love affair with the charming, captivating, effervescent and—let's be honest—kind of wacky golfer. She was smart, sassy, sexy and unique.
But that wasn't the juicy stuff.
"She hasn't had a career; she's had an Italian opera," wrote Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray in 1986. "Her life story unfolds like the plot of one of those old Irene Dunne movies of the '30s, Theodora Goes Wild or The Bride Wore Black, the kind they advertised as 'wacky, zany, madcap.'"
Except, along with the slapstick comedy, there was a deeply tragic streak. As Murray wrote, after documenting an incident some 10 years earlier, when Spencer-Devlin showed up at the posh Waldorf-Astoria in New York City to book a suite without any money or identification, only to explode into a rage and wind up in a psych ward, "This is not celluloid hijinks. This is real life. Muffin Spencer-Devlin is not just playing a high-spirited, mixed-up young sub-deb from the Hamptons; she is really a sick girl. . . . This is manic-depression. Muffin's mood swings are not schoolgirl larks. They are dark ailments of the soul."
The public knew these stories as much as they knew her sweet swing. But in 1996, Spencer-Devlin made national news of a different sort when she revealed in the pages of Sports Illustrated what many sportswriters and most of her fellow LPGA pros already knew: She's a lesbian. A handful of professional athletes had already outed themselves, most notably Czech tennis star Martina Navratilova. But most were not known stars, or they did so after their careers were past their prime. No female American had taken the step, and no athlete had done so in the pages of America's top sports magazine.
But that was the easy part in a life that has been not only well-lived, but also well-survived.
* * *
Sitting on a bench in the sycamore-lined canyon at Aliso Creek, waiting for two of her playing partners to tee off, Spencer-Devlin talks about the disease that has plagued her for the past 40 years. "When you're in that manic phase, you don't want to come down," she says. "The only way to do it is to admit yourself into a hospital. And there's no way I'd do it myself."
She smiles, more than a touch of mischief dancing in her sparkling blue eyes. "It's a very cunning disease."
Her condition led her to professional golf. And being honest about her bipolar disorder was a crucial factor in her decision to out herself.