It's the peak of the morning rush hour in L.A., but Jan Stephenson doesn't care that she's an hour late for another million dollars' worth of publicity. She's staring out the window of the car in which she's riding, brooding. She just can't get over the fact that two days earlier in San Jose she had driven her ball out of bounds on the first extra hole of a tournament and lost a playoff. Also, she's exhausted because her hotel reservation for the previous night was fouled up and she more or less had to sleep on the San Diego Freeway. Plus, she has broken up with her boyfriend—again. She's sick, tired and edgy, with no one to love her. Being a star isn't always what it's cracked up to be.
Stephenson is going to a photo session for Fairway, the magazine of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She sighs. These days life is one photo session after another, one interview after another. one Johnny Carson guest shot after another. The magazine's photographer and his assistants are waiting for her. So are a television crew, lighting men, makeup men, more still photographers and an assortment of anxious golf and television executives.
As the car turns into the studio driveway, they're all lined up outside, standing on tiptoe, some with their hands up to their eyes like Indian scouts. Suddenly one of them is at the car window.
"What?" says Stephenson. The man, speaking solicitously but quickly, wants to know if the car could be backed up. The TV crew, now fumbling frantically with equipment, missed the shot of her arrival. The car reverses. Stephenson mutters, "They better get it right this time."
January 18, 1982
This time the camera crew dutifully records her entrance, and inside the photo studio everyone is all smiles. They are so happy to see her! Stephenson sizes up the situation immediately, the way she knows right away whether the iron shot facing her is a hard seven or an easy six. She doesn't even bother saying anything like the alarm didn't go off or the traffic was murder. Instead she breezes in and chirps, "I can't believe they gave me such an early shooting. Everybody knows I always get a late pro-am time."
A whole roomful of hearts skips a beat, and not a man stops smiling. Stephenson, the 30-year-old golfing sprite from Australia, is no longer just another pretty face. She's rich and famous. They know it. She knows it.
The LPGA knows it, too, and couldn't be happier, because Stephenson did a lot for the image of women's golf in 1981. That was the year in which Billie Jean King admitted she'd had a lesbian affair and almost knocked a wheel off the apple cart of women's sports. And all during that parlous time there was Stephenson out front on the sports pages, looking good and playing better.
Golf insiders used to make snide remarks about Stephenson because she was a powder-puff hitter who couldn't putt and choked in the clutch. Pretty, and generally up there among the top money winners, but a loser. But last year Stephenson turned things around. The back trouble that had plagued her in 1980 didn't reappear and she won four tournaments, including Canada's Peter Jackson Classic, her first major LPGA title. Stephenson was a leader-board regular, accumulating $180,528 in official prize money—fifth in the standings—and fielding calls from every dealmaker around.
In the end, though, Stephenson will probably remember '81 less for the money she made than for the fact that she proved to herself—and the world—that she was more than cheesecake, that she finally had become a golfer.
The thing that strikes one first about Stephenson is her size, barely 5'5" and 115 pounds. That and her good looks. Stephenson is truly striking, though not quite a 10, as she is well aware. "If you took me away from the golf tour, I'd be just another pretty face," she says, adding, "but I'd like to see Bo Derek after 18 holes in 100° weather. Those cornrows and beads would be history."
Still Stephenson's fans seem intent on comparing her to Derek, as, for instance, happened last August, when Stephenson was on her way to setting an LPGA tournament scoring record with an incredible 18-under-par performance at the Mary Kay Classic in Dallas. As she marched up to the 18th green on Sunday, her face grim as it almost always is on the course, she saw that the scoreboard boys had spelled out a message that also reflected her lead at the time: JAN'S A 10.
Last year, Stephenson's fifth on the tour, had started with no great expectations; after all, she had slipped from 15th on the money list in 1979 to 34th in 1980. Then, as the season got under way, controversy erupted about her. Fairway came out with a picture of her reclining on an ornate bed, looking seductive, with her dress hiked high (page 33). In early February fellow pro Jane Blalock wondered in a guest column in The Miami Herald whether the LPGA was selling golf or sex, said the Fairway pictures smacked of exploitation and called them "quasi-pornography," a phrase Stephenson still has trouble pronouncing.
Thus, every week, when the tour hit a new town, the writers descended upon Stephenson, showering another couple of tons of newsprint on her. She figured the controversy might not be such a bad thing when, right after Blalock's column appeared, a gray-haired lady ran up, hugged her and said, "Baby, flaunt it while you can, because you won't have it forever." Considering that the size of her galleries tripled, corporations began beating a path to her door and a lot of other good things started happening, Stephenson bears Blalock no malice. "What I ought to do is send her a bottle of champagne," she says.
Astonishingly, in the middle of all this, Stephenson's game came together and she began to win. Ed Oldfield, a teaching pro who divides his time between clubs in Phoenix and Chicago, had helped to improve her game, but more important, she stayed healthy. Physical therapy, swimming and stretching cured the muscular ailment in her upper back, and whenever she felt her body start to collapse under the rigors of the tour, she took a week off. "Basically I'm weak physically," she says. "I'm a real weakling. My brain and ambition don't really fit with my body."
The LPGA can tell a good thing when it sees it, which is why Stephenson was in Los Angeles last October for the photo session, this time with her skirt up a few more notches. The LPGA's notion was to pose her and several other players in shots reminiscent of famous movieland pinups. And Stephenson, showing a sure eye for a good thing, landed the plum role of Marilyn Monroe in the famous shot of MM's skirt fighting a losing battle with the draft coming up through a subway grating during the filming of The Seven Year Itch.
Jan as Marilyn! What could be more appropriate? Throughout her career, Monroe strove to be taken seriously as an actress, while even now Stephenson would probably trade her looks for another 15 yards off the tee. As for punctuality, Monroe was terrified of crowds, which is why she usually showed up about three weeks late, after everybody had left. Stephenson? Well, she gets there when she gets there. Nowadays, most people don't seem to mind waiting.
And, like Monroe, Stephenson's life isn't all that terrific. "It's all screwed up," she says half seriously about every 15 minutes. Sex symbol? All you need to know is that Stephenson says she has never danced with a man.
One of the tricky problems all athletes have, particularly those who travel extensively, is juggling their public and private lives, and in golf it's even worse because the sport demands physical and mental maturity. You don't see many teen-agers on the TPA or LPGA circuit. Thus, on one hand, the players get better with age, but on the other, when the women golfers are in their late 20s or early 30s and may be starting to play their best, they find themselves without husbands or families and with the time for acquiring them running out. One male observer of the LPGA scene recalls being asked by a tour player in just this sort of fix to sit next to her latest boyfriend at dinner. She was scouting matrimonial material and wanted an outside opinion. As the night progressed, the man asked the suitor, "What do you do?"
"Well, I'm in marketing, promotions, public relations and the oil business," the fellow said confidently.
The other man looked dubious. The beau wasn't a day over 23.
"You remind me of my uncle," the man said. "He's a diamond cutter."
"Really? Where does he work?"
"Yankee Stadium. He mows the grass."
The golfer almost fell off her chair laughing, but a short time later she married the guy anyway. It lasted only a few months.
To understand Jan Stephenson, you should know that she enjoys romantic novels, the kind in which the heroines are misunderstood and unappreciated. But Sir Galahad comes along in the final chapter to chase off the louts, to offer a shoulder to cry on, to make everything right.
"I would love very much to have a good personal relationship, because I'm getting everything else on the track," says Stephenson. "I mean I know where I'm going with my golf. I want somebody who cares about me, someone who's all mine, who's just crazy about me whether I play badly or not, who thinks I'm wonderful. That's hard enough to find in itself. Next, I'd like him to be flexible enough so that he could be on tour and share my wins with me, which means he'd have to be rich or own his own business. And, it goes without saying, he'd have to be in good shape physically." And, of course, he would be a smoothie on the greens.
With her guidelines, Stephenson realizes that she has eliminated almost every male in the world. "Sometimes I feel like I should give up waiting for Prince Charming," she says. If she had it her way, she'd get on an airplane, fall asleep on a guy's shoulder and wake up in love. But the reality is that if it happened, he'd have to go off to work and she'd have a tournament to make in Walla Walla. Besides, Stephenson doesn't like to take chances; even though she had a 10-stroke lead that Sunday in Dallas, her caddie still had to talk her into going for the pin on the last hole. "I like to be on the fairway," she says of her abhorrence of conflict and failure. So the disappointing fact is, if her dashing swain appeared, Stephenson would first check his Dun & Bradstreet rating.
On the golf course, getting a smile from her is a tough proposition. She plays each round with a grim, hangdog expression because her size means she has to beat the other players with work rather than raw strength. "I'd like to loosen up, to have the people like me, but I can't," she says. "I'm in another world on the course, and yet I love all the attention, all the people recognizing me. Like recently when I was in Key West, I felt guilty because I wasn't doing anything but sitting in the sun, so I went down to this old golf course to hit balls and this man came up and asked my name. I gave the name of a friend who was with me. Then my friend said her name was Jan Stephenson. The guy said, 'Well, if you keep practicing, do you think you can get to be as good as the Jan Stephenson?' I love it when they say that: the Jan Stephenson."
Stephenson has practice-tee hands, elegantly shaped but rough and weathered. No one works harder. She is the wee ice maiden. She pushes herself too hard and often pays for it by coming down with one ailment or another. She sits at the dinner table making lists of what she has to do the next day. The easy money's there, but she won't take it. Or, at least, much of it. The question is why?
With her looks, Stephenson could be one of the tour's Barbies, walking around under a parasol to keep the sun from withering her face and spending three days a week giving exhibitions at corporate outings. She tried it for a time, but it wasn't satisfactory. "It was hurting my golf," she says. "That's No. 1, golf. I could take the money and run, but I won't prostitute myself. I want to be No. 1. There's so much to do and so little time."
Years ago, shortly after she arrived from Australia and before she had made a dent in the U.S. scene, a golf writer noticed her figure and wrote, "She'll be married before she's in the record books." Last year, the day after Dallas, after she had gone 65-69-64-198, what did she do? She practiced, for four hours. "She's not just a beauty queen," says Oldfield. "Of all the people I work with, she works hardest. There are a lot with more talent, but she uses all the strength she has."
Not many fans have the right line on her. She chuckles when gallery comments are repeated to her. "She looks tired," an older woman says to a companion. "Yeah" is the reply. "She probably had a late night." Says Stephenson, "I wish I led the glamorous kind of life people think I lead." She usually is up at 7 a.m. and in bed by 8 p.m. In her room she does a dance routine and calisthenics to taped music. Normally, she eats in, cooking her own vegetables. Then she putts and putts and putts. She has a putting machine, and the first thing she wants to know about a motel is how long a stretch of unobstructed carpeting she'll find in its rooms. It's not farfetched to say that the fastest way to Stephenson's heart would be to teach her how to putt better.
She was obviously gifted as a kid, but she was poor, too, a combination likely to breed an overachiever. Her father was then a bus mechanic in Sydney. Stephenson attended the prestigious, academically select Fort Street School, then all-girls, where she got her share of A's and learned to speak French well enough that upon winning the 1981 Peter Jackson in Quebec, she made a five-minute acceptance speech in impeccable French. But she never took the time to make friends. At lunchtime she studied drama and dance, and after school her father was waiting to pick her up to take her to the golf course to practice. When she was about 12, her father told her that if she was diligent, someday she could be an excellent golfer. He showed her an apartment building. "Why," he said, "you could make enough money to buy that." About three years ago, Stephenson purchased some condominiums, took pictures of them and sent them off to her father.
"It was big prestige to say you went to Fort Street and so I had to go there," says Stephenson. "The girls were all brilliant. I was a loner. They were the elite. I remember one of the teachers saying, 'Why do you waste your time playing golf when you could be a good doctor?' I said, 'Because I want to be rich.' They couldn't comprehend that I could make a lot more money playing golf than all those girls put together. See, being poor, I had a burning desire to be rich. Those girls at school had no idea what I was after. Looking back now, I just love what I've achieved." Oh, if that old gang could see her now, with her big house in Fort Worth, and the condos in Phoenix and Houston, and the part interest in an airplane, and the Cadillac, and the Mazda RX-7 she's forever almost turning over because she drives so fast. What else is there? Well, just this one little thing.
"Right now I'm beyond material things," says Stephenson. "What I want more than anything is to be the most famous woman athlete. I want to be that person desperately, someone like Muhammad Ali, whose name would come up all the time. But before I have that, I have to be No. 1. That's my goal, within five years."
One day last month Stephenson was considering the validity of the comparisons between herself and Marilyn Monroe. "In one of my past lives I had a similar life to Marilyn Monroe's," she said. "I was a film star who was pushed and got into the drug scene and was absolutely a brilliant actress, but no one ever paid me any attention."
Past lives? Stephenson smiled. "I'm not into that reincarnation stuff at all," she said. "It makes me sound like I'm a total flake, but one of my friends is Debbie Meisterlin. She's into all the things I'm not, but we get on really well. Anyway, a while ago I was sick again and we decided that this time I should go mental instead of physical. I went to psychic healers and faith healers. This one doctor had this little gadget that he moves all over a patient's body. When it starts slowing down, that's where you've got something wrong. When it got to my back, it spun around and went the other way, and he said, 'You have a back problem.' I said, 'Right, right.' It was great! Then he said that whatever profession I was in, I was outdoors all the time and there was pesticide poisoning in my body." Stephenson's eyes were wide now.
"Anyway, we left this doctor and we went to this other place where they can tell you what you were in your past lives. See, Debbie was trying to entertain me because I was sick. This guy could tell you about the past. He said I was from this little country town in Ohio. That's why I feel so comfortable in the States now. He said I had this mother who wanted me to go on the stage, but I didn't really want to do it. Anyway, she pushed me and I became this big film star and was miserable and I wound up committing suicide from drugs at a young age."
In a real-life past life, Jan called herself Vanessa, which she thought was really exotic. She went by this name in 1974, her first year on the tour, when she earned the LPGA's Rookie-of-the-Year Award. It was her fond hope that everyone would refer to her as Vanessa—no last name—as in Cher or Ann-Margret.
Can this be the same person who on the golf course looks as if her breath could freeze water? "Everybody thinks I'm so tough," says Stephenson. Her voice has a kind of self-mocking lilt to it. Last month at the wedding of tour golfer Dale Lundquist, who was marrying an aspiring pro named Mike Eggeling, Stephenson was one of the bridesmaids. During the ceremony she was teary-eyed. Later someone asked her what she had been thinking. "I wished it was me," she said.
Stephenson's guy, off and on for the last eight years, had been Eddie Vossler, but now, according to her, the romance is definitely off. Her relationship with Vossler reveals a lot about Stephenson. He's a big fellow, handsome in a rough-hewn sort of way, who is the son of Ernie Vossler, a former touring pro who has made a bundle in land development. Eddie was going to try the pro circuit, but he couldn't get through qualifying school. When he wasn't with Stephenson, he was off flying his airplane and working in the...oil business. You needed a scorecard to keep track of whether they were together or not at any given moment. There was a time a few years ago when Vossler came home and Stephenson had on a new white dress, the kind one might wear walking down the aisle. This is it, she said, we're getting married.
Vossler looked at her. "We're not getting married," he said. "We're never getting married." Stephenson threw the dress away, and the next week, when the tour was in Georgia, she met Steve Bartkowski, the quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, and the two began dating.
It seemed perfect. Bartkowski is a striking, matinee-idol type, with curly hair, and he then had a playboy reputation. Peachtree Bart, the writers called him. He and Stephenson laughed a lot. But he wanted to wear jeans to the country club. And then he went off to training camp and a monk's isolation. You can probably guess the rest. There was a tournament in Japan where Stephenson won $2,000 for making a hole in one. She called Vossler. Then she called Bartkowski. Then she called Vossler back. Her phone bill was $1,800, and afterward she was right back where she started, back with Eddie.
Stephenson sounded like a child of the '60s when she explained the often chaotic relationship. "He lets me do my thing, and I let him do his thing," she would say. Vossler was also her financial adviser, and he handled any unpleasantness that arose, such as knocking down the price of a caddie or saying no to a tournament sponsor—the type of conflict Stephenson hates.
Stephenson has been offered $50,000 by a magazine, just to take off her golf shirt in front of a camera, but she says she wouldn't care to do anything her father wouldn't be proud of. Burch Riber, the general chairman of the LPGA Championship tournament, says that a Cincinnati attorney would give him $50,000 if Riber could get Jan to marry the lawyer. And guys regularly show up in Stephenson's gallery, offering everything from flowers to the keys to a Mercedes-Benz to the secret of putting.
"I guess faithfulness is more important to me than anything," says Stephenson, "because I'm out on the road all the time, and everybody is taking a shot at me, one way or the other. I just want one thing that will really be all mine, that nobody can touch, one steadying influence in my life.
"I've considered giving up golf for a man," she says. "But golf's part of my life, so I have to compromise. I compromise my whole life for golf. I'd always be miserable if I didn't give it everything I had, after I've gotten to this point now, where I actually can be No. 1."
Last year Stephenson and Vossler went so far as to get a marriage license and take their blood tests, but this time Stephenson withdrew at the last second. Says Vossler, "What she's trying to prove to herself is that she's done the best she can. If she quits short of her goal, she'll be unhappy." Just like the girl who gets married at 20 instead of embarking on a career, Stephenson would always wonder if she had made the right decision.
Actually, she was married once, in the early '70s, though very few people know it. She had tried everything to get to the U.S., even writing colleges for a scholarship. She had won the Australian Junior three times and the New South Wales Amateur twice, but the other girls from Fort Street were now in medical school, and she couldn't get out of Sydney. "It was the end of the world," Stephenson says.
So there was this fellow with a lot of money and they had been dating a bit. He wanted Stephenson to marry him. They talked about his sponsoring her on the tour, so in the end she said yes. Now she claims to have forgotten how long they were married, somewhere close to four months. "I don't like to make mistakes, and I made a mistake," she says. "It happened 10 years ago; why should I still be punished? I don't even like it mentioned."
Running away from her past, Stephenson works harder than anyone, and the dividends are beginning to come in. During one nine-event stretch last season, she was fifth or better seven times, and she finished the year in the top 10 of every LPGA statistical category. Actually, work is too soft a term for what she puts herself through. For example, she has a putting drill in which she has to make 100 four-footers in a row before she'll leave the practice green. Sometimes it takes hours.
Her father, Frank, who came over and toted her bag most of last summer, writes to her almost every day—her mother, Barbara, who also has caddied for Jan, usually adds a line or two of her own—and in the closets of her condos and house are all the pretty dresses she has bought and never worn.
So what if she gets to be No. 1, and, like Marilyn Monroe, is still unhappy? What then? Stephenson looks startled. "I think I will be happy..." she says, her voice trailing off.
And so she keeps driving herself, through sickness and through health, almost beyond comprehension. Last month at the J.C. Penney Mixed Team Championship, a relaxed year-ending event in Largo, Fla. that most players regard chiefly as an occasion for conviviality, Stephenson strode angrily off the course after a bad round. Said her partner, Ben Crenshaw, "She's in a fog, she's so mad."
Later, when Stephenson had purged herself on the practice tee, Crenshaw tried to tell her that golf had to be more fun than it was for her. "It's not life or death," he said.
Stephenson looked at him. "It's not?" she said.
Then she went to hit some chip shots, occasionally punctuating them with comments like, "This is the one I missed at 12...." She had no touch at all, and as the shots clunked she became more exasperated, chopping quickly at the ball. Soon she was hitting assembly-line fashion, faster and faster, and her lower lip was quivering and her eyes were ready to drip. "I can't do this anymore," she wailed. "I'll break down if I do." Then she threw down her club and marched off to her room.
"She takes it serious, doesn't she, Joe?" someone said to Joe Roach, her caddie at that tournament. He nodded yes.
Just then another caddie stepped forward. "Sure she takes it serious," he said, dead serious. "Golf is a game you hasta take serious."
So why doesn't Stephenson take the money and run? Simple. She is looking not so much for victories as for vindication, proof that her sacrificing—leaving her family, abandoning her country, maybe even throwing away her chance for love—has been worth it. Her heart, you see, belongs to golf. She hasta be serious about it.