The sigh of relief could almost be heard, the relaxing of the tense, defensive posture could almost be felt. When Muffin Spencer-Devlin went public with her lesbianism, it let the air out of an issue tugging on the edges of the LPGA.

And no one felt that enormous burden lighten more than Spencer-Devlin.

``It's absolutely wonderful,'' she said Wednesday from Tucson while preparing for the Ping-Welch's Championship.

``It's been really consciously four years in the making,'' she said. ``I came out of denial about manic depression and fooling myself into thinking it was hypoglycemia in 1992. And I thought then, `Wouldn't it be great if I could come out?'''

But coming off a 1991 season in which she won only $13,170, Spencer-Devlin just didn't feel she could do it.

``I was in a really poor financial situation and I was afraid I would lose my endorsement deal,'' she said. ``I was just afraid.''

Now, after a year in which she won $100,449, with a stronger back she hopes will turn her to her peaks years of 1984-89 when she won three times, under treatment for manic-depression and with companion musician-composer Lynda Roth, the 42-year-old Spencer-Devlin found the strength to come out.

``At this time in my life I'm very happy with myself,'' she said. ``I've done a lot of work over the years with growing as a human being and becoming a human being. I want my public life to reflect the joy that's in my personal life.''

Even before former CBS golf commentator Ben Wright was quoted last May as saying that lesbianism hurt sponsorship of the LPGA and endorsements for its players, it was the awkward issue no one quite knew how to deal with.

``When I first came on I was asked so many questions, I couldn't fathom why it was an issue,'' Jim Ritts, who took over as LPGA commissioner in January, said from Tucson.

``Of course there are gay players on the LPGA Tour, just as there are in every profession, and there are heterosexual players,'' Ritts said.

But for some reason it was an issue that once thrown at women's golf, stuck.

``It stuck because no one was out,'' Spencer-Devlin said after becoming the first openly gay player on the tour. ``Once someone comes out the issue goes away. When you have a big target like that (the LPGA), someone takes a shot.''

Spencer-Devlin said the response from other players has been very positive and that her equipment company _ Callaway _ had no problems with her decision.

``We talked to Callaway before we went ahead and did this,'' said Linda Stoick, Spencer-Devlin's agent. ``They were very supportive of it.''

Callaway's president, Don Dye, stood by her strongly.

``If it doesn't interfere with her ability to hit the golf ball and she continues to show the kind of integrity that she clearly does, she's our kind of spokesperson,'' Dye said in the current issue of Sports Illustrated in which Spencer-Devlin spoke about her lesbianism.

The reaction of equipment companies and tournament sponsors to gay athletes has always been a concern, even though golf officials deny advertising has ever been affected.

``My belief is that it will have virtually no impact, just as it has in the past,'' Ritts said.

Players, golf officials and equipment company executives say no players have been denied endorsement deals because of their sexual preference. But it appears gay athletes may travel a less lucrative road than straight athletes.

``I think there is enough documentation across a wide variety of sports that there is clearly a reluctance to use athletes that are homosexuals as endorsers,'' said Shelly Hale, a market analyst for Hambrecht and Quist in San Francisco.

``Look at Greg Louganis versus Mark Spitz,'' she said of the Olympians. ``Or Martina Navratilova versus Chris Evert. In both cases the value of their endorsement contracts were impacted.''

Louganis and Navratilova were both known to be gay while they were active competitors.

``That's changing,'' Hale said. ``But it is not anywhere near the heterosexual contracts. When it comes down to it, basic business prevails.''

Ritts, who said the LPGA now can ``dispense with the toxicity of this issue,'' has felt no fallout from Spencer-Devlin's frank talk about her lesbianism.

``Look, it's afternoon and I haven't had a single phone call from anyone involved in the business side of the game about this,'' Ritts said. ``We both know that if an issue carries heat behind it, it bubbles very quickly. That isn't happening here.

``This is a personal story,'' he said. ``People are going to react to it on a personal level.''