Golf is supposed to be a frustrating game, but compared to what Jan Stephenson has been going through off the course for the last few months, it must seem a breeze. Last week Stephenson won the LPGA championship, the second major title of her career, and did it while involved in a bizarre tug of war between two men, both claiming to be her husband.
Stephenson has long been one of the most glamorous players on the circuit. In recent seasons she has become a legitimate star as well. Her ambition is to go down in history as the most famous woman golfer ever. Right now she's the runaway favorite for woman golfer with the most tumultuous personal life ever.
Somehow, though, whenever she's on the golf course she manages to keep all the trauma outside the gallery ropes. As she achieved a two-stroke victory at the Jack Nicklaus Sports Center at Kings Island on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Stephenson played with what seemed to be total serenity. She had rounds of 69-69-70-71-279, nine under par, and survived the charges of a bunch of the best, including JoAnne Carner, Beth Daniel and Hollis Stacy.
Stephenson led from wire to wire, as impressive a feat as figuring out who gets the community property when you may or may not be married to two people at the same time. Between rounds, she was being asked barbed questions about her love life. "I'm dreading this," she said before talking to reporters on Thursday. By Sunday, Stephenson was a lot more chipper. "It meant a lot to me that I could overcome all the people trying to hurt my game," she said after the final round.
June 20, 1982
But she also had some helping hands. Her mother, Barbara, walked in the gallery and kept her well fed, fixing a favorite dish—steamed vegetables—for her every evening. Her father, Frank, caddied, and Jan rewarded him with the sports car that went along with the first-place prize of $30,000.
Stephenson pursued the LPGA title with particular intensity, because, she said, it was important to have "respectability." What she meant was that her first and only other major title, last year's Peter Jackson, could then no longer be written off as a fluke. Trying to dodge the press and other distractions, she registered under an assumed name in an out-of-the-way motel and spent a lot of time in her room practicing her putting.
As she walked down the 18th fairway Sunday, two strokes to the good, her father turned to her and said, "Now you can relax." "Don't say that," she told him. "I might four-putt."
Carner made one charge at the leader midway on the back nine, but Stephenson responded with a 20-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole, which kicked the door shut for good. "I don't think anybody could have caught her today," said Carner after shooting a final-round 69 and finishing second. "The thing that gets me is, the more trouble she has, the better she plays. I wish she would get everything straightened out so the rest of us could win more tournaments."
Altogether, this has been a wet and wild year for the LPGA, replete with bad weather and emotional storms. Rain has interrupted seven of the 19 tournaments so far, and in the last 12 months, the marriages of three top players—Stephenson, Nancy Lopez and Donna Caponi—have been blown onto the rocks.
Stephenson's travails have been physical, mental and financial. She has broken her right foot, been fined $3,000 and been ordered to undergo a psychiatric examination. Also, her assets have been frozen, and whether she currently has one, two or no husbands depends on what a court has to say.
The foot was broken last winter in an aerobic dance class, forcing her to miss the Tour's first seven tournaments. The fine was slapped on her last month by LPGA Executive Director John Laupheimer after she made an appearance in Japan and skipped a stop on the LPGA schedule. "He was trying to protect the Tour," Stephenson says. "I was trying to protect my bank account."
But her most vexing ordeal is her own marital disarray. Just before last Christmas, around her 30th birthday, Stephenson split up with Eddie Vossler, a Fort Worth businessman with whom she had maintained a highly charged on-again, off-again relationship for eight years. On March 5 she married Larry Kolb, her business manager. A month later at the Nabisco Dinah Shore Invitational, she called Kolb her "Prince Charming" and left the press tent one afternoon arm in arm with him. An hour after that, she left for the day with Vossler and has been with him ever since.
Kolb has claimed that Vossler has undue influence over Stephenson, asserting that he has used manipulative techniques comparable to Charles Manson's, and has likened her to Patty Hearst. At one point Kolb even flew to Japan with a San Francisco psychologist, Dr. Lowell Streiker, and Dr. Streiker's associate, a deprogrammer of Moonies named Rie Sandstrom. They tried to persuade Stephenson, who was playing there, to talk to them. "Deprogramming," says Kolb. Stephenson refused. While there, Kolb surreptitiously lifted Jan's passport from her golf course locker and almost wound up in jail when she screamed bloody murder.
Back in this country, Kolb and Streiker went to Birmingham, the site of Stephenson's next tournament. They persuaded a judge there to sign an order committing her to a hospital, and a deputy sheriff pulled her out of the locker room on April 28, just before the tournament began, and took her away. With lawyers at his side, Vossler roared into town. The lawyers persuaded the doctors at the hospital to release Stephenson to them overnight and next day the judge rescinded his order. Vossler's legal battery then' served Kolb with a petition to have the Stephenson-Kolb marriage annulled on the grounds that she already was married, without her knowledge, to Vossler in a common-law liaison.
Last week Stephenson was asked what she wished would be the end result of the dispute. "That my marriage to Larry be annulled and that my marriage to Eddie be ruled legal," she said.
Pending a hearing in Tarrant County court in Fort Worth, Texas early in August when all of this supposedly will be resolved, Stephenson is in a financial bind because her assets have been frozen by Kolb as the result of a separate action seeking the appointment of a third-party guardian for her. "That means I can't pay the bills Larry has run up on my credit cards," she says.
Meanwhile, Kolb has told his side of the story to a horde of media people. Informed that Jan was leading the early rounds of the LPGA, he quipped, "Great. I hope she wins. We need the money."
"He's worse than John Hinckley," Stephenson fumed. "He thinks I'm his Jodie Foster."
Replied Kolb, "Jan is no more responsible for her actions than Patty Hearst was when she was calling her parents 'Pigs' and shooting up banks with machine guns."
That Stephenson could play competitive golf through all of this says something about her talent, as well as her dedication. Her 69-69 start in the LPGA marked the seventh and eighth times in her last 21 rounds that she had shot in the 60s, even though she has been having some trouble on the greens. Seeking a solution to these problems, Stephenson called in Vossler last week for a putting lesson.
"My swing is so good now that it's impossible for me not to play well," she said. "Actually, if I do lose this tournament because of those short putts, it will be Larry's fault because that is where the whole thing is affecting my concentration, on the greens. I've been spending so much time with lawyers that I don't have time to practice."
Stephenson had eight birdies in the first two rounds and on Saturday, playing most of the day in a light drizzle, she had five more. For a time, she was five strokes in front of the field, but she began looking over her shoulder at Daniel and Carner and wound up with a 70 for a total of 208, which left her two strokes ahead of Daniel and four up on Carner, who was tied for third with Stacy and Pam Gietzen, a second-year pro who earned a grand total of $457 last season. But Stephenson was unhappy about bogeying the 18th.
"My finish really devastated me," she said. "I have to go out tomorrow and make a lot of birdies. The first few holes are going to be real important. I must make my first hard putt."
That she did. The test came when she and Daniels were briefly tied at the 6th hole and Beth put in a 40-foot chip for a birdie. Stephenson was looking at a six-foot putt for her own birdie and feeling nervous. It was truth-or-consequences time, and Stephenson had the answer, stroking the ball into the cup. She walked off the green with a bounce.
That's how it went. Stephenson was calm, cool and ready to collect. Daniel hung close until the back nine, when Stephenson's consistency finally got to her and she bogeyed the 10th through 13th holes. For Jan it was all over but the shouting, a hug from her father and a toss of her ball to the crowd. Jan Stephenson finally had the "respectability" she wanted. Now if she could only figure out the rest of it.