Jan Stephenson, the LPGA’s original siren, is still making waves

August 6, 2010

This interview was first pubished in the November 2003 issue of Golf Magazine.

Australian Jan Stephenson has gotten her share of good and bad bounces. She sometimes laments that she’s not part of golf’s in crowd, but she’s too much the rebel to fit in. She sometimes thinks she might have been happier had she not followed her own drummer. Stephenson, who won 16 LPGA events including three majors and more than $3 million on tour, is still best known for her sex-kitten pose in a bathtub full of balls. But her friends and competitors know her as a dedicated athlete, one more likely to be doing aerobics alone in her hotel room than running around town.

She agreed to be a sex symbol to help attract fans, sponsors and money to the LPGA Tour. But the girl in the bathtub wasn’t the real Jan Stephenson. The real Jan was compulsively working on her game, trying to win championships.

Her dad taught her to fish when she was five. She loved to surf and was more interested in catching the right wave than the right guy. She’s been married once, divorced once. Recently she got her hands dirty and built her own golf course. Now she pilots her own boat and dives for lobster. And she continues, in her own way, to carry the torch for women’s golf.

We met at the course she designed in Mims, Florida, as she planned to take on the men of the Champions Tour at the Turtle Bay Championship.

You’re 51 now. Do you still get hit on?
Yeah, and you know what? It would upset me if I didn’t.

Should the LPGA actively sell sex?
We have to promote sex appeal. It’s a fact of life. The people who watch are predominantly male, and they won’t keep watching if the girls aren’t beautiful. That’s not just the LPGA Tour, either. In Australia the highest-rated television event is the women’s surf championship. Why is that?

May I take a guess?
The girl who was winning had the most beautiful body and she’s running around in her swimsuit, coming out of the water soaking wet. It’s like Baywatch. It’s all about sex appeal, and we have more beautiful women on tour now than ever. I would love us to do a calendar. We’d blow people away.

In 1986 you posed for a famous photo — you and a bunch of golf balls sharing a bath. How often are you asked to sign that poster?
All the time, and I love it, too. You would have liked what I had on underneath the balls.

And here I thought we weren’t making progress.
I had on a little bikini bottom and two round pieces of cardboard discreetly covering my nipples.

The PGA Tour sells sex, doesn’t it?
Everyone wants to skirt it, but it’s true. You have Tiger and Phil and Adam Scott and Aaron Baddeley. They are gorgeous. Their clothes are beautiful; everything about them is exciting. So we have to catch up. The women are not the best players — the men are. The women are not the best athletes — the men are. Whether we like it or not, we have to promote sex, because sex sells. I think you have to shock.

Selling sexiness never seemed to get in the way of your best golf.
Ask Ben Wright about sexiness getting in the way of good golf.

Ben got in trouble for saying women couldn’t swing well because they have breasts.
He’s got breasts as big as mine now.

Were you disappointed when your fellow LPGA Tour pro Jill McGill refused to pose for Playboy?
It would have been great. I said to her, “Jill, they’re offering you more than half a million dollars. There are two reasons to do it — it could change your life financially, and it would put us on the map again.”

Is it great that LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw is dating Sophie Gustafson, one of the tour’s players?
It’s hard to accept the timing. I’m concerned that their relationship affects the future of the LPGA and its ability to secure more sponsors. I’m in no position to judge anybody on what they do personally, but I could see sponsors saying, “We don’t think it’s right for the commissioner to be sleeping with a player.” And if sponsors think it’s wrong, then it’s wrong.

Is Votaw a success otherwise?
He’s doing the best he can, but I don’t think he’s the right person for the job. The commissioner should be a marketing person, not an attorney.

What’s the matter with the LPGA’s marketing?
I was talking to a multiple-major-winning PGA Tour pro who said, “Men are men. They watch the majority of sports. If you want them to watch women, the women will have to play great and look great.” If David Duval — someone with no personality, not good looking, not a powerful athlete — was the best player on the PGA Tour, it would hurt the tour. Kathy Whitworth used to say, “Why should it matter what I look like?” The answer is that this is entertainment, and female entertainers have an obligation to look as great as they possibly can.

Other female players have not always shared your view.
But they’ve all come around. Carol Mann and Jane Blalock said, “We were wrong.”

Does the LPGA have other problems?
This is probably going to get me in trouble, but the Asians are killing our tour. Absolutely killing it. Their lack of emotion, their refusal to speak English when they can speak English. They rarely speak. We have two-day pro-ams where people are paying a lot of money to play with us, and they say hello and goodbye. Our tour is predominantly international and the majority of them are Asian. They’ve taken it over.

What would you do about that?
If I were commissioner, I would have a quota on international players and that would include a quota on Asian players. As it is, they’re taking American money. American sponsors are picking up the bill. There should be a qualifying school for Americans and a qualifying school for international players. I’m Australian, an international player, but I say America has to come first. Sixty percent of the tour should be American, 40 percent international.

There needs to be more of an educational process of what to do in pro-ams, how to act in pro-ams. They need to give back, just as I did, Nancy did. Sally Little and Ayako Okamoto did, too, in the ’70s and ’80s.

Does the tour have some responsibility to say something to them?
Yes. Ty had a meeting with them. No one knows what was said, but they were a lot friendlier the next week.

Were you hit on in the locker room?
I used to get teased by the girls that I didn’t need a woman problem because I always had a man problem. They never really bothered me because they knew I was straight.

Society is more open now about gay relationships, but it does hurt the tour. It hurts with sponsors. But if you had two gorgeous girls who were gay, I don’t think that would hurt.

In 1990, you were leaving a Miami Heat game when a mugger grabbed your purse and tried to yank your wedding ring from your finger. He twisted and broke your finger and threw you to the ground. Was the damage more physical or emotional?
It changed me. It started as physical damage, but I developed faults that were psychologically based. I had to change from a left-sided swing to a right-sided one because of the damage to my left hand. I still can’t really close that hand. My promoting of the tour in the ’70s hurt my win total, but the mugging hurt my body, my game and my psyche.

As you approached 50, did you rethink your commitment to competing?
Two years ago, early in a tournament, I made a great birdie and had the honor. Annika was in the group, and she teed up ahead of me. My caddie said, “Tell her it’s your honor.” And I said, “I don’t want to bother her, she’s trying to win the tournament.” He got mad at me, I got mad at Annika and I sniped it into the water and made double.

Years ago, if someone had done that I would have said, “Hey, Nancy, get your ass out of there, it’s my honor.” That moment with Annika made me question if I still had what it takes to win.

Is Annika that intimidating?
She is. You might talk baseball with Juli Inkster, but with Annika you’re scared to say anything. Her locker is always next to mine, and I don’t know her. I’ve left notes of congratulations on her locker because I’m scared to bother her. She’s so focused all the time — I just wonder what she’s really like.

She says she’s quitting in a few years.
I find that hard to believe. She’s taken practice and work ethic to a new level. I remember a flight to Australia one night: Everyone was crashed, and there she was on her computer figuring out her statistical weaknesses. In the middle of the night she figures out that she has weaknesses with her wedges inside 80 yards.

Her own public-relations efforts can’t be faulted lately.
The good thing that happened is that Annika smiled at Colonial. She broke down and admitted to nerves on the first tee. We were shocked to see that. But it was great to see that emotion because with us she’s intimidating and doesn’t talk. We were clapping as we watched her play, saying, “She’s changing. We are actually seeing her personality.” Since the Colonial, people line up to see her. She put the LPGA Tour back on the map by doing what she should have been doing earlier — being our Tiger Woods. Showing emotion whether it’s good or bad.

Who’s the best female player of your generation?
Nancy Lopez. No, Beth Daniel — Beth has stood the test of time.

The best pressure player?
Has to be Nancy Lopez. If I had to have someone make a pressure putt for me to win a tournament, I’d pick Nancy.

Who maximized the least talent?
Betsy King. She’s the Tom Kite of the LPGA Tour. She doesn’t have a pretty swing or a pretty putting stroke, but she worked hard and got the job done.

I think Karrie Webb has the best swing since Mickey Wright. Why hasn’t she been right there with Annika, as she used to be?
When Karrie first broke through, putting was easy for her. She was aggressive and made everything. She may have lost a little confidence over the years, but now she’s coming back. I’ve seen Karrie working really hard lately. Annika has motivated her.

Have you gotten fair credit from the LPGA for your game and your marketing efforts?
I resent that I didn’t make the Hall of Fame because I spent so much time promoting the tour for no money, which took me away from winning tournaments. I posed in bathtubs, traveled every Monday to do an outing for free that the tour made money from — and yet never a word of thanks. Nobody knows what I’ve done. The players now don’t know.

When John Laupheimer became commissioner in 1982, PR and marketing disappeared. He thought it was a sacrilege that you could buy posters of me in a wet T-shirt at the 1983 U.S. Open. I got so mad at his attitude that I was like, “Screw you.” So I went out and won the title. I always played better mad.

In retrospect, what would you have done differently?
I wish I had been more selfish. I wish I had been like the Asians and Annika and said, “No, my game is what’s important.” That’s what I’m going to do now. For the next two years, it’s going to be about what Jan wants and not what everyone else wants Jan to do.

Would you undo your sex kitten image if you could?
Absolutely. I wish I hadn’t done any of it. I wish I had done nothing but practice and work out. I became a celebrity and my endorsements were worth more, but I didn’t make any money from the calendars or the bathtub shots.

Should LPGA players show more fire?
Emotion sells. When Beth Daniel was playing great I loved to watch her get fined for hitting her club into the dirt and leaving it there. I tried to do it but I wasn’t strong enough. Then, on a rainy day in Japan, I had a horrible temper going and slammed the club into the mud three times before it stuck. An official gave me a triple fine — $200 for the first time, $200 for the second and $200 for the third. And it was worth every penny because I finally did it. I was so proud of myself!

Is it true that you used to sleep with your putter?
I used to take my putter to my hotel room and people would tease me: “Are you going to bed with it?” I’d say absolutely. I don’t have kids, so golf is my love. It’s everything to me. I guess I never had the golden touch in bed, with my men or my putter. But I’m working on it and I’m getting better — with my men and my putter.

Is it true that on chips and bunker shots you always tried to leave yourself a left-to-right-breaking putt?
Absolutely. I could not hit a right-to-left putt to save my life.

Do you think you will get into the World Golf Hall of Fame?
I have no shot. Only Jane Blalock has less of a shot. It’s supposed to be about being a champion and doing something for the game. I’ve made the contribution as a player and promoter of women’s golf, but you won’t see me in the Hall of Fame. The Judy Rankins of the world are not going for it. The commissioners aren’t going to do it.

How much does that bother you?
The older you get, the more you care. It hurts because I think, “Gee, I wish I had done things differently.”

What happened to your broadcasting career?
After I got mugged and couldn’t play for a while, NBC asked me to do commentary for the Nabisco. But Nancy missed the cut and she wanted to do TV, so they cancelled me. They said, “Nancy is much nicer than you are.” I got so mad I had a tantrum. I told [NBC Sports executive producer] Tommy Roy, “You’re gutless. I may never play again, and this was my chance.”

And that was it?
I got one more chance. But Tommy Roy was there and I went off on him again. He said, “I don’t want you doing TV for me.” So they fired me before I ever went on TV. I was pretty embarrassed. Nothing goes right — Nancy would get all the thanks, and I’d get fired or treated like an outcast.

Were you and Nancy friends, rivals, enemies?
We’re good friends. But it was always one against the other — the good American girl against the big calendar sex deal. It seemed like she always beat me coming down the stretch, so the TV thing was one more: “God, Nancy beat me out again.”

Your decision to play a Champions Tour event has been called a publicity stunt. But doesn’t golf, especially women’s golf, need publicity?
Exactly. Annika played against men for the same reasons. So did Michelle Wie and Suzy Whaley.

I’m not competing against the men — they’re my friends, guys I’m always playing with in charity events and pro-ams. What I’m doing is promoting women’s senior golf. We need to build awareness, to get a women’s senior tour off the ground. So yes, I’m doing this as a publicity stunt. Publicity stunts are good.

Who has criticized you?
The only ones are Mr. Negative, [ESPN host] Jim Rome, and Nancy Lopez. Nancy feels I’m not playing well enough. She was very negative. She wants a chance to do it herself, but she’s not 50 yet. I am the leading 50-year-old woman.

What’s the downside?
There’s a terrible downside. I’m so competitive that if I play badly I’m going to look miserable out there. I’m not going to be like Suzy and smile after a double bogey. I’m not going to smile like Annika. I can be vicious when I make a bogey. If I don’t play well I’m going to be miserable. But Nancy Lopez used to get furious, and people loved it. Just like with Tiger.

What are your thoughts on Tiger?
He’s probably going to get mad at me…. He’s so intelligent and he knows more about his swing than Butch Harmon does. He got as much out of Butch as he could. The only thing I don’t like is he isn’t using videotape this year. He always used to — I would video him and he always wanted to look.

I like it that he’s tinkering, though. Arnold Palmer didn’t, Jack Nicklaus didn’t, Nancy Lopez didn’t. Arnold and Nancy would have played better longer and Jack would still be winning on the Champions Tour if they’d spent more time tinkering with their swings. Phil and Davis [Love III] and Annika tinker and they’re getting better.

But Tiger is working on the wrong things. He’s trying to get the club in front of him, but I think he does it the wrong way. He could improve quicker with different coaching — bouncing thoughts off many coaches.

What kind of reception do you expect from the men of the Champions Tour?
Fuzzy Zoeller will give me a big kiss and ask me to play a practice round. Hale Irwin and Tom Weiskopf have both sent messages saying they can’t wait to see me. Every one of them has been very positive.

Can you really finish 30th, as you’ve suggested?
It’s very realistic. I’m a great wind player, and Turtle Bay is very windy. I expect to shoot even par.

Hootie or Martha?
Without question, Martha. Hootie is so out of line. I am in shock that Nancy and other players don’t see it that way. Augusta National changed their racial clause but not their gender clause. They should have just changed both. The issue would have gone away.

What’s the worst sexual discrimination you’ve faced?
Trying to break into golf course design. I try not to take it personally, but I’m very emotional and it breaks my heart. You and every other man who has played my new course in Florida, Walkabout Golf and Country Club, love it. All I ask is, “Give me a chance. Look at my credentials. See what I can do and see what I have done.”

Time to play a few holes on your course now?
Yes, I think we’ve caused enough trouble. We’ve pissed off just the right number of people.