Sports Vault: When Stephenson won the LPGA here, she showed she was more than a pretty face

MASON, Ohio -- Thirty-five years after her victory at the 1982 LPGA Championship victory at Kings Island, Jan Stephenson returns to the region to compete in the inaugural Senior LPGA Championship at French Lick, Indiana, July 10-12.

Jan Stephenson's 1982 victory at Kings Island was a high point in her tumultuous career.

"I wasn't one of the favorites to win" at Kings Island, Stephenson recalled in an exclusive interview after her press conference at French Lick's Pete Dye Course last spring. "It wasn't a good golf course for me, because it was kind of wide open, and the long hitters had a big advantage.

"But the year I won, they had so much rain that they couldn't mow the rough," she said. "That obviously helped, because the bombers couldn't bomb away."

Stephenson herself was revered a a bomb -- a bombshell, that is. A racy cover shot for Sport magazine's "Sex in Sports" issue (May 1977) rocketed the 26-year-old Australian to fame. She'd been the 1974 LPGA Rookie of the Year and won twice on tour in 1976, but her game hadn't yet matched her looks.

Soon, it did.

In 1981, she won three LPGA events, including her first major championship, the Peter Jackson Classic. In 1982,she won two more, including the LPGA Championship, and three in 1983, including the U.S. Open.

The LPGA Championship and U.S. Open capped her professional golfing career.

 

Stephenson was a driving force in LPGA prize money skyrocketing in the late 1970s. USA Today summed it up nicely in 2015: "In 1976, the winner of the U.S. Women's Open took home just $9,054 … It didn't take long for people to start pouring through the gates to watch (Stephenson) in action … LPGA Tour players went from competing in 21 events for a combined $435,040 in 1970 to 38 events for more than $5 million 1980. By 1989, that number had risen to more than $14 million."

The top prize for the French Lick tournament is $30,000, which coincidentally is the same amount Stephenson collected for the victory at the LPGA Championship.

"I have to be reasonable at my age (65) that I have probably a pretty slim chance of winning here (French Lick)," Stephenson said. "But the golf course helps me a lot. I like the course really tight; it fits my game. I'm probably 80 yards behind Michelle McGann (off the tee), who is 45, so it makes it tough."

McGann and Jane Blalock also attended the press conference at French Lick in the spring.

"The fact that it's a major and that it's so important for us makes it really neat," Stephenson said. "I love to compete. I think I appreciate competing even more now. When you're in the middle of playing (on the full-time tour), you are so wrapped up in winning and going to the next tournament. I don't like social golf. There's just something about trying to play your best and competing."

There's a tendency for high-achieving athletes to focus on victories alone, rather than what their presence means to the game and how they might elevate their sport. But that was never an issue for Stephenson, because in 1982 she knew what she meant for women's golf. She and Nancy Lopez were the faces of it. The LPGA marketed Stephenson hard; they knew that sex sells, and Stephenson was the sexiest player out there.

"I'd been selected to be the new image of the LPGA, so I had to spend a lot of time promoting it," she said.

The Grizzly course at Kings Island wasn't a good course for Stephenson, she said later, because it was kind of wide open, and the long hitters had a big advantage. But heavy rains meant longer rough, which leveled the field for her.

The 1982 victory at Kings Island was such a high point in Stephenson's tumultuous career, it is the climactic scene in an upcoming movie about her.

"That was the end of keeping everybody quiet who said I couldn't play, and it was a big thing for me personally," she said. "That meant probably more to me than even winning the U.S. Open."

There's a nice connection between French Lick and Cincinnati that goes back to the early 1900s, when the Chicago Cubs trained in Indiana and rode the train here to occasionally open the season against the Reds. Now, the connection is golf.

At 170 miles from Fountain Square, French Lick has proven to be well worth the 2½ - to  2¾-hour drive for Greater Cincinnatians, be it to play golf (at the Dye Course or the Donald Ross Course), gamble/catch a show/people-watch (French Lick Resort Casino), or merely relax (West Baden Springs Hotel with its inspiring 200-foot-wide atrium).

The Ross will host the Symetra Tour (LPGA's developmental circuit) July 7-9, leading into the Seniors at Dye. After winning the Senior PGA Championship in French Lick two years ago, Colin Montgomerie had high praise for the Dye course on national TV:

"It'll become one of the iconic courses in America," he said. "It will be a course that many people from around the world, never mind America, will come and play."

The $600,000-purse Senior LPGA Championship will carry plenty of memories for even casual golf followers in Cincinnati. In the field besides Stephenson is Sally Little (1980 LPGA Championship winner), Patty Sheehan (1983, 1984), and Pat Bradley (1986). The LPGA Championship was held at Kings Island's Grizzly Course from 1978 through 1989.

The LPGA Championship was held at Kings Island's Grizzly Course from 1978 through 1989.

"We never got tired of the course," Stephenson said. "Having the tournament there all those years was an advantage, because it's kind of like the PGA tour being at the Masters every April. You get to know the golf course on TV and everybody can talk about whatever changes are made and how the course sets up that year for the different players."

Stephenson said she also has a book in the works, although it will come out after the movie.

"It will probably go through the whole of my life up to now," she said.

Last year she said the book would be a "ripper." Is that still going to be the case?

"Yes, it will be," she said. "It's kind of a tell-all. We'll have to slow some of the stuff up because of what's happened."

The "what's happened" is a reference to Donald Trump being elected president. Stephenson dated Trump from late 1975 to late 1976, before Trump married Ivana in April 1977.

"We're trying to calm it down," said Stephenson, smiling. "We don't want the book to be wrapped around that. It's going to be more like a chapter."

Doing the movie first has been a boon for Stephenson because the researchers and script-writers "have reminded of a lot of things that I'd forgotten about … You get so carried away with the present that you forget things."

One of the most compelling things to me about Stephenson is that she believes she could have won more tournaments in her prime if she wasn't doing photo shoots and appearances in promoting the women's tour. I attended most of the 12 LPGA Championships at Kings Island, and I know from experience that Stephenson had the game to win more if she wasn't being pulled in other directions.

"I wouldn't say I 'regret' doing all that promotional work, but I would say if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't have done so much PR for free for the LPGA," Stephenson said. "I was so tired; I was not getting any days off. Back in those days, I'd be getting a telex in my hotel room (from the LPGA) saying, 'Hey, we need a potential sponsor -- will you fly to New York or will you fly to this other place?' The commissioner at the time said, 'People are going to appreciate what you're doing for the tour.'"

One of those contracts was with Cincinnati's Taft Broadcasting in the 1970s.

After a racy cover shot for Sport magazine's "Sex in Sports" issue (May 1977) rocketed Jan Stephenson to fame, she became known for her looks more than her golf game.

It's hurtful to Stephenson that she is not in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

"They don't recognize my international wins," she said. "Now they do recognize (today's) players' international wins. If I had the wins, I would have earned my way in without having to worry about the politics of it."

There have been other setbacks as well.

In 2003, Stephenson was quoted as saying that "the Asians are killing our tour." She later said the comment was taken out of context, but the damage was done.

"It hurt my career. I didn't play after that, I was so devastated," she said. "They (the LPGA) wanted me to have a farewell tour, but I was so upset that they took it that way. I care about the LPGA, and I had put it first a lot of time, probably more than my career.

"They (the reporter) asked me what I would do if I was the commissioner. I'd just come back from (South) Korea; I had done a goodwill tour, and I had seen what was coming. (During my career), I couldn't play in Korea because they only allowed six Caucasians. I felt, 'Wait a minute, every other tour in the world, they protect their home country.' Even though I'm Australian, I felt (all) the tours should be 50-50. If we don't do those things to protect the American kids (on the U.S. tour), it could hurt it."

That's all she was saying, she said.

"The (South) Koreans got upset and they tried to have me blocked from the tour. I received death threats, and after all I'd done (for the LPGA tour), it was devastating to me that it would mark my career, that it would end my career. It really saddened me."

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