Nov 17th, 2018
The remarkable story of golf disruptor Jan Stephenson
From dumping Trump to revolutionising the LPGA
Words: Tim Southwell
Representing for the GolfPunks All Across The World: Jan Stephenson
It’s been quite a life. From turning down Donald Trump in order to concentrate on her golf, to almost single-handedly saving the LPGA Tour in the 1970s, to major wins and a stint in an insane asylum, Jan Stephenson has divided opinion from the moment she burst on the scene in 1975.
Finally, she is being inducted to the World Golf Hall Of Fame, amid strong roumurs that Margot Robbie has agreed to play Jan in the movie story of her life.
Rarely does one person have such a profound effect on a sport. The obvious candidates are, well, obvious: Muhammad Ali; Pele; Magic Johnson, our own Tiger Woods – individuals who’s very presence catapulted their sport beyond the confines of their own arena and into the mainstream.
Jan Stephenson may not come readily to your mind when trying to compile a list of the real disruptors, the people who ‘made a difference’. But she should be. Without Jan Stephenson, the LPGA might still be stuck in the quagmire of indifference it wallowed in from inception in 1950 until 1977.
Stephenson’s impact on the game has led to widespread rumours that her life is to be immortalised in a movie in which she will be played by none other than fellow Aussie superstar Margot Robbie (Wolf Of Wall Street).
"We've talked about doing a movie, Margot Robbie wants to play me," Stephenson told the Golf Australia podcast Inside The Ropes.
Robbie, 28, is an Australian who first made a splash for her role in The Wolf of Wall Street and has furthered her notoriety as an actress with roles in Suicide Squad and famously as Tanya Harding in I, Tonya, a role that earned her an Oscar nomination. Recent pictures of Robbie on the golf course have only fuelled this speculation.
So, what happened in 1977 to catapult Jan Stephenson into the stratosphere? Quite simply, she appeared on the cover of Sport magazine. Already an established LPGA player with two wins on tour, Stephenson was approached in 1977 by LPGA Tour Commissioner Ray Volpe to be the face of a new-look tour, a role Stephenson was more than willing to play, and the Sport Magazine cover was going to be the first step towards realising that plan.
The photographer suggested he take a couple of pics of the impromptu outfit and – slightly off guard – Stephenson complied. If the internet had been invented back then, this would have broken it.
Prior to this event, the LPGA was little more than a glorified money match with players effectively competing for each other’s money – the tour was ignored by journalists and spectators alike. Prize money was poor. For example, the winner of the U.S. Women’s Open walked away with $9,054.00, compared to $42,000.00 for the male winner.
As well as being a very talented player (her legacy is 16 LPGA titles and three majors) Jan Stephenson was sexy. And she didn’t mind using it in order to get herself, and the LPGA ‘out there’.
“A lot of what I did was ahead of my time,” she says. “People didn’t understand it and not everybody liked it.”
But, boy, did it make a difference.
“Donald was good looking, charming, very accomplished and wealthy. He always had a lot of beautiful women who wanted to go out with him. He was not the Donald you see today."
Stephenson was born on 22nd December 1951 in Sydney, Australia. She became obsessed with golf from an early age and it wasn’t long before she was winning big tournaments. Her teenage years saw her win five consecutive New South Wales Schoolgirl Championships in Australia. She followed that up with three straight wins in the New South Wales Junior Championship.
No doubt about it, the girl was going places. Her parents were working two jobs each in order to make ends meet and support their daughter’s ambitions. She turned professional in 1973 and won the Australian Ladies Open in her very first year on tour. Next up was the LPGA. Stephenson was Rookie Of the Year in 1974.
Her two LPGA wins in 1976 brought Stephenson to the national consciousness. She was getting noticed. And not just by her fellow tour pros. Enter a certain Donald Trump. A chance meeting left Trump enamoured with this Australian golf goddess. They began dating and soon Trump was suggesting they step things up a level.
“Donald was good looking, charming, very accomplished and wealthy,” recalls Jan. “He always had a lot of beautiful women who wanted to go out with him. He was not the Donald you see today.
“We kind of started seeing each other. Its was all business at first – Donald had asked me to represent one of his casinos – but then he took me to all these beautiful restaurants and we did the whole disco thing and the 70s retro. You couldn’t ask for anyone else to spend time with.”
Things got so serious Trump gave Stephenson an ultimatum, it was either him or her career.
“I’d given up so much to become a tour pro," says Jan. “My family had given up so much for me… I just couldn’t have that relationship right then. I wanted golf. I felt I would be letting everybody down if I gave it all up.”
In a last ditch attempt to save the relationship, Trump asked Stephenson to meet him for dinner and chartered a private jet from New York to Atlanta where Stephenson was due to play the next day.
“So I drove out to the plane and when the door came down, Donald didn’t come out and the pilot told me to come up. When I stepped in, the plane was full of red roses – it was beautiful. And there was one rose and an invitation sitting on a seat. I opened it and there was the name of a restaurant I'd never heard of. So I turned to the pilot and asked him where the restaurant is, and he said “It’s in Paris”.
“I thought, well I can’t do that, I’ve got a tournament to play tomorrow, so I said thanks but no thanks. I didn’t hear from him for a while after that…”
Thank Christ for that… While Trump foraged pastures new, Stephenson threw herself into her golf. She might not have won in 1977 but the LPGA ended the year extremely grateful for the Stephenson effect. LPGA Commissioner Volpe came calling, the photoshoot went crazy and an unprecedented wave of LPGA controversy and wagging tongues.
The dispute caused Stephenson such distress that, in 1982, she ended up being checked into an insane asylum.
So what exactly happened? It is the thing of legend now that, midway through Sport Magazine’s Sex In Sport Issue shoot, Stephenson was due to make a wardrobe change, so she took off her shirt and unclipped her bra, and as she looked for a a new outfit, put a thin, pink linen shirt over her head and tied it at the waist.
The photographer suggested he take a couple of pics of the impromptu outfit and – slightly off guard – Stephenson complied. If the internet had been invented back then, this would have broken it. Even Stephenson had misgivings: “When they told me they’d be using the picture of me in a pink shirt, I was confused. I was like, ‘What picture of me in the pink shirt?!”. The I remembered and thought… ‘oh, no…”
She even wrote a letter asking Editor Barry Sainback to use a different picture. It didn’t work. The magazine was already at the printers. As Stephenson bit her fingernails and pondered the monumental shit-storm heading her way, the magazine was being distributed around the globe.
The LPGA would never be the same again. Within weeks of the the magazine’s publication, Jan Stephenson had become one of the most famous female athletes in the world and women’s golf had a pin-up superstar.
Just when she should have been on the crest of a wave, this is actually where things get complicated for Jan Stephenson. The following year, she married her manager Larry Kolb after he convinced her that her longtime boyfriend, Fort Worth golf pro Eddie Vossler, had been unfaithful. Her request for a divorce shortly after set off a bizarre legal dispute between the two men.
Vossler, who claimed her marriage to manager Kolb violated his and Stephenson’s common law marriage, tried to have the new marriage annulled. Kolb disagreed since Vossler would be entitled to a portion of Stephenson’s property if she had to divorce him instead. Jan, rather understatedly, says the whole thing was a “mess.”
"Jan Stephenson, the prettiest girl to have a lot of golf talent, is a walking soap opera,” one unnamed LPGA Tour player told the New York Times .
The dispute caused Stephenson such distress that, in 1982, she ended up being checked into an insane asylum by Kolb to meet with a cult deprogrammer, saying that Stephenson was ‘mentally ill’ and had been brainwashed into wanting a divorce.
Stephenson fought back against her husband, petitioning for an annulment of their marriage, alleging that Kolb used fraud and duress to induce her into the marriage. A judge quickly ordered her immediate release, and she went on to win the Women’s PGA Championship later that year, her second major, beating JoAnne Carner by two shots at Jack Nicklaus’ Grizzly GC at Kings Island.
It is testimony to Stephenson’s golfing talent and determination that events off the course did not affect her performances on it. She won the Sun City Classic in 1980. But it was 1981 that proved to be her zenith. She won her first major at the Canadian Open (it was a major from 1979-200), staring down Pat Bradley and arch-rival Nancy Lopez on a dramatic last day which saw her over the line by a single shot.
Stephenson followed this with two more LPGA wins in 1981, the Mary Kay Classic and the United Virginia Bank Classic. Along with Nancy Lopez and Patty Sheehan, Stephenson dominated the women’s game in a golden era in the lates 70s and early 80s. Stephenson added the 1982 PGA and 1983 US Open titles to her triumvirate of majors.
She continued to take criticism for using her sex appeal and appeared in more risqué magazine shoots, though she refused to pose naked for both Playboy and Hustler. She also once featured seemingly naked in a bath tub filled with golf balls.
"Jan Stephenson, the prettiest girl to have a lot of golf talent, is a walking soap opera,” one unnamed LPGA Tour player told the New York Times at the time. “And one must bet that, like all soap operas, if it isn’t this current thing it will be something else. Soap operas are not supposed to ever end, are they?”
So what of Stephenson’s legacy? Her golf credentials are bullet-proof but it was her defiant self-confidence that set her apart and inspired a generation of young girls to front up and project the kind of self-image that they can be proud of.
Natalie Gulbis was the heir-apparent to Stephenson, and she has repeatedly referred to Jan as one of her biggest idols. Gulbis even recreated Stephenson’s famous bathtub scene and has appeared in a number of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issues.
Despite never quite earning her way onto the LPGA Tour, Blair O’Neal carved a niche posing for a series of raunchy advertisements for GolfPunk and Cobra PUMA. Paige Spiranac, like Blair, may not have the game to compare with the likes of Stephenson, but both are serious golf influencers helping bring golf to a wider audience using sex appeal to attract attention to the sport – and themselves. The fact that they can make a decent living outside of the tours owes a huge debt to Jan Stephenson.
Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie – who became the first woman on the cover of Golf Digest since 2008 wearing a mix of gym clothes and ballroom gowns – are a chip off the old Stephenson block. Serial winners, they make no apologies for wearing what they want, when they want to. If it rubs the golf feds up the wrong way, so be it.
“You know, I understand the criticism, but that’s me and I’m proud of the work I do in the gym,” 20-year-old Lexi Thompson, who repositioned her image with GolfPunk’s seminal shoot in 2014. “I have absolutely no regrets about it.”
For such a divisive character, it’s perhaps no surprise that the World Golf Hall Of Fame took either time to come calling for Jan Stephenson. But come they did this year. “I hope I did a lot,” says Stephenson of her induction.
"It's really important for Australian women to see this. Hopefully for female junior golfers in Australia, this shows how important it is to have golf in your life ... even if you don't make the Tour it's a wonderful sport.
"I'm so emotional; I've been crying, (getting) goose bumps, I couldn't sleep. It was like winning the (1983) US Open all over again.”
Jan Stephenson. Representing. GolfPunk salutes you.