Commissioner Jan Stephenson? Sounds good to her

Friday July 10th, 2009
Jan Stephenson
AP

Former LPGA star Jan Stephenson was driving to a business meeting in Tampa, Fla., earlier this week when her phone starting buzzing. "I was getting texts like crazy, and I was like, 'Wow, what has happened?'" Stephenson said.

As it turned out, a small group of elite LPGA players had called for the resignation of their hard-charging commissioner, Carolyn Bivens. But Stephenson's friends were doing more than just alerting her of the news. "They were all like, 'This is your chance to be commissioner,'" Stephenson recalled.

Commissioner Jan Stephenson?

"I would absolutely love that job," the 57-year-old Australian confirmed Thursday from her Florida office.

(Bivens has not yet resigned, but Golfweek has reported that the LPGA will not retain her for the final two years of her contract.)

Stephenson won 16 times on the LPGA Tour, including three majors, but she is perhaps best known for popularizing the tour through her sex appeal and steamy photo shoots in the 1970s and 80s. "I would do things differently than Carolyn," Stephenson said. "I've been on tour since 1974, so I've seen what works and what doesn't work."

If she landed the job, Stephenson said she would help second-tier tournaments stay afloat by instituting more creative, fan-friendly formats, including team play and mixing fields with senior legends like Nancy Lopez, or even male golfers from the Champions and Nationwide tours. Stephenson said she would also implore brand-name players to play a minimum number of smaller events and she believes that the players would happily comply for the greater good of the tour.

"That's one thing about the LPGA that is unbelievable to me: over the years when somebody was sick or something horrible happened, the girls rallied like nobody else," Stephenson said. "Everybody gets behind a cause and does whatever it takes. All you have to do is ask."

Stephenson, reeling off ideas like she was on a job interview, said she would also mine marketing and business development strategies from other sports — and other golf tours. "I think if you reached out to the PGA Tour with an olive branch and said, 'We need your help,' I think you'd get it," Stephenson said.

Bivens has been criticized for her blunt, hard-nosed manner and the bullish approach she has taken to expanding the LPGA in a bearish market. The tour has lost seven tournaments since the start of 2007 and six more events are searching for sponsors. Another seven tour stops have expired or expiring contracts. Bivens has been cursed by a tanking economy, but Stephenson says the commissioner's aggressive initiatives — which have included increasing sanction fees that tournaments must pay the LPGA — have been the wrong strategy at the wrong time.

"I'm sure the commissioner was doing it for the good of the LPGA and the players, but you've got remember that these sponsors have been here to support us through thick and thin, and right now especially you've really got to make them feel good," Stephenson said. "Carolyn didn't do that.

"I love the fact that she's very straightforward and that she tells it the way it is. That's the way I am," Stephenson added. "But I've had a lot of dialogue with sponsors, and they haven't liked that tough approach. It's either her way or no way."

Stephenson said Bivens' lack of a golf background — Bivens was previously president of a media services agency — also has hurt her ability to manage the tour. "I've seen lots of commissioners come and go," Stephenson said. "The ones who have done really well have either understood marketing or they have an amazing appreciation and understanding for the history of the game."

When Bivens took the job in 2005, she promptly fired many longtime staffers. Stephenson saw that as a slight to the game. "She made a lot of enemies, probably because she wasn't advised that's just not what you do in golf," Stephenson said. "Everybody prides themselves on the LPGA and PGA [brands]. You can't just wipe it clean and say that's not the way it's going to be anymore."

As for Stephenson's credentials, she doesn't have decades of management or marketing experience, but she does run both a course design and real estate development business, and she says she has kept a close eye on the tour since retiring from competitive play. (Just last week she was at the LPGA's Corning Classic, schmoozing with sponsors and players.) Stephenson also helped found the Women's Senior Golf Tour, and in 2003 she became the first woman to play on the Champions Tour.

Despite her deep LPGA roots, Stephenson's history of edgy commentary will not help her resume jump to the top of the pile. In 2003, she asserted that the preponderance of Asian players in women's golf was "killing the tour." She has since said that those remarks were taken out of context and that what she intended to say is that Asian players who don't speak English or have a tendency to bottle their emotions need to work on being more accessible, particularly during pro-ams. Which is precisely the position Bivens took (and caught hell for) in 2008 when she famously threatened to require that all LPGA players be proficient in English.

"I heard what Carolyn was saying and I should have said, 'You know what? You need to back off,'" Stephenson said. "'I agree with what you're saying, but it's not the right time or the right way to say it.' I wish I had said something."

That wasn't the first time Stephenson wished she'd whispered in Bivens' ear. "When Carolyn first came on, I met with her, and she was like, 'How come we don't have many events? I've got to make more money for the LPGA. It's pitiful that we just roll over for our sponsors.' It was pretty clear that was the wrong time to be doing that."

And if Bivens picked up the phone now and called Stephenson for advice?

"I'd say she needs to hire me as a vice commissioner," Stephenson said. "I could probably get her back on track."

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