It hardly seems possible, but the corners of Dottie Pepper's
mouth have begun a slow, northerly ascent. It is less than two
hours since the merciful end of Pepper's six-bogey, one-double
final round at the JAL Big Apple Classic, yet as she slumps in
the back of a limo speeding toward Manhattan, a smile is
threatening to bloom. Yes, this is the Dottie Pepper, known on
both sides of the Atlantic for a disposition every bit as spicy
as her name. This is a woman whose competitive kettle burns so
hot she has suffered ulcers, colitis and a hiatal hernia; who
grinds so hard at everything she does, particularly golf, that
she has to wear a bite plate at night so as not to wear down her
teeth. This is the same Dottie Pepper who is so consumed by the
game that she skipped her senior prom in high school to play in
her first LPGA event.
But here she is, less than 120 minutes removed from a god-awful
76 that cost her a shot at victory, and a smile has spread
across her face. It is a big, beautiful, contented smile, full
of sunshine, and why not? Sitting across from Pepper, and
beaming right back, is Ralph Scarinzi, her significant other as
she calls him, a dapper gentleman who happens to be her caddie
of three years. They have bolted from New Rochelle, N.Y., site
of the Classic, for a big night on the town celebrating the
one-year anniversary of what Scarinzi calls "more than just a
They have other things to celebrate as well. Physically Pepper
is sound, after nine seasons of maladies great and small. Then
there is her golf game, which is better than it has ever been,
even after 14 career wins, nearly $3.7 million in earnings, a
major championship (the 1992 Dinah Shore) and a player of the
year award (also '92). For as disappointing as that 76 was,
Pepper's three-round score of 218 tied for fifth (seven shots
back of winner Caroline Pierce) in the cold and blustery
conditions at Wykagyl Country Club. It was her seventh top-five
finish in her last 10 tournaments, a torrid stretch that has
included four wins and established her as the hottest player in
the game, male or female.
"I'm working at being healthy and very happy," Pepper says, the
wattage of her grin matched only by the bright lights of
Manhattan whizzing by. "I feel settled right now, and I think it
shows in my golf."
October 13, 1996
Pepper's hot streak began in June, after a missed cut at the
U.S. Women's Open that came at the end of a trying 13 months. In
May '95 Pepper was divorced from Doug Mochrie, whom she had
known since she was 13, and married while an undergrad at
Furman. The Mochries were so determined to keep the divorce
proceedings private that Dottie didn't tell her parents until
two weeks before the papers were signed. (To the delight of
headline writers, Pepper reclaimed her maiden name this season.)
With typical resolve she soldiered on after the divorce, even
shooting a 66 on the day a terse press statement about it was
But Pepper lost more than a spouse. Mochrie had been a guiding
force in her career as her swing coach and for many years as her
caddie. A new instructor attempted to shorten and flatten her
mighty, freewheeling swing, supposedly to encourage consistency.
Paralysis by analysis ensued, with Pepper playing consistently
poorly the latter third of last season and into this year. It
didn't help that she was trying to break in a set of clubs at
the same time.
The one thing that has separated Pepper from other players, even
as an eighth grader on the Saratoga Springs (N.Y.) High boys'
team, is an unshakable confidence. However, as her downward
spiral worsened through the first half of this year, Pepper no
longer felt so bulletproof. Says her father, Don, "It was the
first time in her life that Dottie hit a low point and stayed
there. She had never had to play her way out of a real slump
After the missed cut at the Open, she went back to an old
mentor, Ted Yossuf, the owner of Valley Golf Club in Columbiana,
Ohio, with whom she and Mochrie had lived for a while early in
their marriage. "All I did was apply a little polish to a
Rolls-Royce," says Yossuf. He had Pepper go back to her old
swing and told her to scrap the new sticks for what Pepper calls
"my dinosaurs," a battle-tested set of forged Titleist irons.
It felt like slipping on a favorite pair of blue jeans. Three
weeks of beating balls brought back her old form, and her old
confidence. Says Yossuf, "She had blisters the size of quarters
on both hands, and I would say, 'Dottie, don't those hurt?' She
would just fix me with that glare of hers and say, 'Not as much
as missing cuts does.'"
Pepper won her first event after returning to the tour, the
Rochester International on June 23, and won the ShopRite LPGA
Classic in Somers Point, N.J., the next week. She hasn't looked
back since. "It's the most dominating stretch of my career,"
she says. Pepper, who was 22nd on the money list before
Rochester, is up to fourth ($570,307) and is third in player of
the year points.
Through it all Scarinzi has been at her side. A dead ringer for
Indy-car driver Bobby Rahal, only taller, Scarinzi has been
steering LPGA players around the course for 13 years, including
long runs with Chris Johnson, Amy Benz and Juli Inkster. He and
Pepper became romantically involved at last year's Big Apple
Classic. "It just sort of ... happened," says Pepper, her cheeks
suddenly the color of the vodka and cranberry juice she has
nursed for the duration of the limo ride. And how did it just
sort of happen?
"The ball's in your court, dear," says Scarinzi with a smirk.
"Why don't you run with that one," says Pepper. Scarinzi makes a
vague allusion to a dark Italian bistro before they burst into a
fit of giggles. Between the ropes Pepper and Scarinzi comport
themselves with such sterile professionalism it is impossible to
tell they're an item. Off the course they go together like a
wink and a smile.
For example, on Friday evening Scarinzi begged out of an
interview, saying earnestly, "I'm sorry, but the dog needs to be
walked." Pepper is a noted animal enthusiast, and the dog in
question is her 75-pound chow chow, Furman, who is driven to
nearly every tournament in Pepper's Chevy Tahoe with the 4 my
dog vanity plates. Meanwhile, Scarinzi is a typical sports
junkie, and he spent most of the Classic exchanging complicated
sign language with gallery members so as to keep abreast of the
Yankees' playoff series with the Texas Rangers. Pepper, too, has
been known to pepper on-course TV announcers with requests for
college football scores. "You should see us fight over the
sports pages in the morning," she says with one of her loud,
throaty laughs that too few people have had the chance to enjoy.
"Ralph is so good for her," says Inkster, who employed Scarinzi
for three seasons and is one of Pepper's closest friends on the
tour. "He gets her to enjoy life a little more, and he gets her
away from the game, which she needs." Pepper agrees. "My
ex-husband, I never would have done something like this," she
says of her trip to Manhattan, which included seeing The Phantom
of the Opera and--at guess whose request--a stop at Mickey
Mantle's restaurant for a nightcap. "We would play a round, then
talk about it, then go hit balls for 12 hours."
This is not to say that Pepper has lost her enthusiasm for the
game. "Golf is in her blood," says her mother, Lynn. "It has
been since she was a girl, and I imagine it always will be."
Dottie took up golf the same year as did her father, and from
the beginning they egged each other on. "It was always a lot of
little bets," says Don. "Who would hit a chip closer or who
would drive the ball farther." Their games were playful, but
with a strong competitive undercurrent. Don was once a minor
league first baseman of such promise that he appeared on the
cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in 1968 with Johnny Bench, Mike
Torrez and a couple of other can't-miss prospects. Pepper had a
cup of coffee with the Detroit Tigers, but with Norm Cash
entrenched at first, he was traded to the Montreal Expos and
retired in 1969. "Dottie's development had a lot to do with her
father," says Yossuf, "and my own feeling is that she saw that
he came up short and she wasn't going to."
There is no telling how many stories have been written about
Pepper's fierce on-course demeanor, which is her defining trait.
"And it's always exaggerated or misunderstood," says Pepper. She
is still smarting from the going-over she received, mostly from
the British tabloids, at the 1994 Solheim Cup, where she was
alleged to have gloated over a missed putt by England's Laura
Davies. Once and for all, Pepper would like to set the record
straight: On the par-5 3rd hole during a Saturday four-ball
match, Pepper and partner Brandie Burton had to scramble to make
pars. Davies was just off the green in 2 and looked as if she
were going to put the Europeans 2 up after only three holes. But
she missed her five-footer for birdie and halved the hole, at
which point, says Pepper, "I looked right in Brandie's eyes and
said, 'Yes! We're still in the match.' It had nothing to do with
Laura, really. I was just excited we weren't in big trouble so
early on." The tabs made Pepper out to be a cross between Tori
Spelling and Mike Tyson, and it all got dredged up at the
Solheim Cup three weeks ago.
Speaking more generally, Pepper says, "I don't think Hogan or
Nicklaus were ever criticized for demanding excellence from
themselves, so why should I be?" No doubt the answer lies in old
notions about what is and isn't ladylike behavior.
"Golf can be dull to watch and dull to write about," says Lynn
Pepper. "Dottie is a very pretty girl, she's exciting and
passionate, and she's a winner. I think because of that, no
matter what, she will always be the center of attention."
Pepper doesn't plan on changing. "If anything, I want it more
now than ever," she says. "I'm hardly mellowing." Then she
settles a little deeper into the cushy leather seats of the limo
and flashes the nicest of smiles.