11 May 2020 | Professional golf | Feature stories |
Great Australian Moments 6: Stellar Stephenson
by Martin Blake
There were two sides to Jan Stephenson’s fame. One was as a brilliant golfer, a winner of three major championships including the biggest of them all – the US Women’s Open, in 1983.
The other was as an ambassadorial figure who had a huge role in popularising the LPGA Tour in the 1970s when it was struggling.
It all happened by accident, at least initially, the way Stephenson has explained it. In 1977 the tour commissioner, Ray Volpe, wanted to spruce up the tour, and he asked Stephenson, who had been on the tour for four years, to do a cover shoot for Sport magazine in the US.
Volpe knew his stuff; he knew that the Australian represented exactly the sexy image that he wanted to project. The notion was controversial; many people held to the notion that the players need not get their gear off to draw some media attention. It is a debate that jumps up even today.
Between sessions with the snapper, Stephenson slipped into a skimpy pink shirt and he took the photo that would ultimately appear on the cover of the magazine. It went viral before viral was such a thing, and the game quickly changed.
Initially reluctant, Stephenson took the pragmatic ‘sex sells’ view. She posed naked in a bath full of golf balls – one of the sport’s most iconic photos. “A lot of what I did was ahead of my time,” she said some years ago. “People didn’t understand it and not everybody liked it.”
Stephenson dated Donald Trump for a time but left that relationship behind because she wanted to travel and play golf. She was seriously good, winning the Women’s Australian Open twice, rookie of the year on the LPGA Tour and a winner of 41 tournaments around the world.
The high point came at Cedar Ridge Country Club in Oklahoma in July-August, 1983. Stephenson had emerged from Tuggerah Lakes and Shelly Beach on the New South Wales central coast to win clusters of state and national amateur titles, all the while dreaming of winning the US Women’s Open.
At Cedar Ridge, she achieved her aim by a shot despite taking bogey on the 71st and 72nd holes because she was “choking and so nervous”, in her own words. “This meant everything,’’ she said.
She was just the third foreign golfer to win the title and the first Australian. At 31, she was at the height of her career, having one a major in three consecutive years – after the 1981 Canadian Open and the 1982 LPGA Championship.
The final day was played in suffocating heat, although Stephenson welcomed it. Starting with a two-shot lead, she shot a three-over par 74 that included a double bogey after a hooked drive on the third hole. ''That kind of scared me a bit,'' she said afterward.
She took double again at the sixth where she hit her tee shot into water, but she was mostly steady for the rest of the day in the tough conditions. Straight after holing out at 18, she took a call from the US President, Ronald Reagan.
''The President said he thought Patty Sheehan was going to catch me, and then he said that I gave him a pleasant afternoon watching the tournament on TV,'' she said. ''It was a great thrill to speak to him.''
Women’s sport has come a long way in the years since. It is worth noting that in the venerable New York Times of the next day, their report referred to her as “Miss Stephenson”. The LPGA is a phenomenal success story, and Stephenson is one of the most significant figures in that rise.
Jan Stephenson was inducted to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2019, just the seventh Australian to be afforded that honour. To this day, the great Karrie Webb and Hannah Green are the only two of her countrywomen to have won a major.
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