For 28 years, Patti Connors has had many titles – gourmet cook, dancer and consummate mother – and those who haven’t known her well have known her as Mrs. Jimmy Connors, wife of the tennis legend. But even just a year before she dropped her maiden name (McGuire) to dart around the tennis world as the doting wife in the stands, this striking redhead with sparkling eyes and porcelain skin was something else altogether – Playboy Playmate of the Year.

In the 1970s, Patti was attending Southern Illinois University as a political science major and was working as a Bunny at the Playboy Club in St. Louis, which is when she became the centerfold model and cover girl for Playboy in the November 1976 issue, the very same issue that contained Jimmy Carter’s “lust” interview, the one in which the future President admitted he lusted in his heart over other women. The next year, she was voted Playboy Playmate of the Year.

She met Jimmy Connors at a party and the two soon became inseparable. They got married in 1978, causing much speculation among players on the tour who placed bets on how quickly the tennis player and his new bride would divorce. Now living in Montecito, still married to Jimmy with two grown children – Brett, 27, and Aubree, 21 – Patti looks back on those days grinning with proud delight.

From Bunny to Mommy

A year after marrying Jimmy, Patti gave birth to Brett and she soon found herself in a new situation – juggling the demands of motherhood separated from the occupation that had formed her public identity. Instead of staying out until midnight at the clubs, she was now up at midnight changing diapers. “In the beginning when I just had Brett, I traveled nine months out of the year on the tour without anyone to help with childcare,” she says during a recent interview. “Brett had his first airplane ride at three weeks old. Some of the places weren’t that great, but Paris, England and Australia made up for it. We had fun and laughed a lot.”

Six years later, Aubree came along, and while marriage and children may have slowed down her jet setting, Patti says she was happy to settle down and make a good home for her family. She made her choice and has no regrets. “I grew up as the oldest child taking care of much younger half-siblings so I didn’t exactly fantasize about being a mom at an early age (her parents divorced when she was young),” she explains. “I knew it was hard work. Our kids traveled everywhere with us, so we are very close.”

Though she didn’t see herself as maternal, those qualities were readily apparent to her friends. “Above and beyond anything else, Patti is a Mom,” says her friend Sandy Stahl, a local real estate agent. “She and Jimmy are among the most family-oriented people I know, putting their highest priority on Brett and Aubree and, of course, the dogs and cats.”

The Connors family eventually settled down in the Santa Ynez Valley on a 71-acre ranch in 1984. It was there that Patti began to get serious about cooking. “To me, cooking is about creating memories,” she claims. “During Christmas, I would bake sugar cookies with my mother-in-law and my daughter Aubree. Then, we would sit around and decorate them. Those are special family times together we will always remember.”

Patti, a self-taught gourmet cook, says she loves to feed her extended family around the holidays, which includes friends such as Jelinda and Barry DeVorzon, Bo Derek, and Dr. Lloyd Greig, who delivered both of her children. “Last Christmas I made a twenty-pound ham, a twenty-two-pound stuffed turkey, candied yams, mashed potatoes and fresh applesauce,” she says. In fall each year, she handpicks apples from the Santa Ynez Valley that will go into her homemade applesauce. And then there’s the traditional Christmas Day breakfast she has served Jimmy every year they’ve been married. “I always make him a breakfast of caviar and pâté served with a glass of champagne,” says Patti, before adding with a laugh, “I also make a normal breakfast for the rest of us.”

Lately, the Connors have been celebrating their holidays measurably closer to these parts. Five years ago, they moved to Montecito. “Our kids had grown tired of the ranch we lived on,” Patti says. “The Valley has changed a lot with the Chumash Casino expanding and other businesses moving in. Jimmy also wanted to be closer to his Montecito golf buddies.”

With Brett and Aubree grown up, Patti has had to adjust to another lifestyle change: empty nesting. Although her children live elsewhere, they come to visit often. Not one to be caught moping around an empty house, Patti has been finding different fun ways to exercise. Lately she has been out on the tennis court with Jimmy. “I was looking for a way to get into shape and Jimmy decided to do something he called ‘Tennis Boot Camp’ with me,” she explains. “He hits balls to me until I am tired. Then sometimes I do laps around the court and jump rope. It is a great workout.”

Jimmy’s Tennis Boot Camp may be a good way for Patti to stay in shape, but it doesn’t measure up to her latest workout: dancing. David Alvarez, whose clients include Nancy Barry and Arlene Montesano, dances with Patti three times a week at his studio, Santa Barbara Dance Center. Banter fills the room as Alvarez and Patti move gracefully across the hardwood floor, talking and laughing along the way. The walls are decorated with pictures of Alvarez and his clients at various dance competitions. When asked whether her picture will hang on the wall someday, Patti replies, “Maybe in a year. They have competitions in Hawaii, which is not a bad place to go.”

She may have traded her Playboy lifestyle, but Patti hasn’t totally abandoned her Bunny past. To this day, she receives fan mail and she recently went to the Playboy Mansion to celebrate Hugh Hefner’s 80th birthday. She has raised her children and says she’s now ready to devote more time to herself and her husband doing the things she enjoys. Meanwhile, she keeps a constant smile knowing that she proved all the skeptics wrong. “All of those people who made those bets have had their marriages fail,” she says wryly. “Jimmy and I are the ones laughing now.”

Poppyseed Rum Cake

Patti shared her easy dessert recipe for novice cooks like myself

1 package yellow cake mix

1 package vanilla instant pudding

1 jar poppyseeds

¾ cup dark rum

½ cup vegetable oil

4 eggs

1-pint sour cream

Combine ingredients in bowl, blend and beat at medium speed for four minutes. Pour into greased and floured bundt cake pan and bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes.