It would be an understatement to say that Jan Stephenson was looking forward to a week off. She had been fantasizing about it for weeks. Thirteen straight LPGA tournaments and a healthy bank account—she had earned a rest, she told herself. Her golf clubs, jeans and bathing suit were all packed; she was ready to disappear to Florida and work very hard at doing nothing.
What Stephenson wasn't ready for was the telephone call from LPGA Commissioner Ray Volpe, begging her to play in an upcoming tournament. Several of the top money-winners had withdrawn at the last minute, but the sponsor would be appeased if Stephenson appeared. Erasing visions of palm trees from her mind, Stephenson agreed to play. "There are times," she said wistfully, "when I wish I was a nobody again."
Alas or happily, Stephenson's "nobody" days are over. In her third year, the 24-year-old Australian is the hottest "somebody" on the ever-expanding LPGA tour. She currently stands fourth on the money list, having finished in the top 10 nine times in the 15 tournaments she has entered. She has won twice, come in second once and finished in a tie for third place in the lucrative Colgate-Dinah Shore, picking up $10,500.
All of this has earned Stephenson $47,470, a sum that would be even more impressive if it weren't for Judy Rankin, whose total winnings stand at $99,385. No woman golfer has ever topped $100,000 for a single season, but clearly Rankin will, probably in this week's U.S. Open, a tournament Stephenson would like very much to win.
Stephenson's success hasn't been quite the overnight affair it seems. She joined the tour in 1974, after dominating the professional circuit in Australia. She earned more than $16,000, finished 28th on the money list and was Rookie of the Year but she was better known for her looks (blonde hair, blue eyes, 5'5", 115 pounds) than her golf game. Last year she upped her earnings to $20,066 and improved her stroke average but never, came in better than third.
Stephenson didn't particularly enjoy being subjected to the kind of questions ("She's pretty, but can she win?") that still haunt a non-winner like Laura Baugh, so she decided to do something about it. She won the Sarah Coventry-Naples (Fla.) Classic by a stroke in early February, shooting 73-69-76—218. "My putting was the big difference," she said. "I've been on the practice green eight hours a day. I try to make 100 four-footers in a row—and don't leave until I do."
The last two rounds at Naples were played in gusty winds, a condition most golfers like about as much as a downhill putt. Stephenson, however, was raised on the blustery shores of the Tasman Sea, and she gets a strange gleam in her eye and begins to fire birdies when small-craft warnings are posted. Ever the perfectionist, she was not happy with her closing-round 76 and set out to prove to herself, as well as to others, that the victory was no fluke.
Five tournaments later, at the Birmingham Classic, she opened with a 65 and closed 70-68 for 203, the lowest 54-hole total on the tour this year.
Stephenson's success is a result of exceptional dedication, determination and...four-leaf clovers. "I had never even heard of them," says Stephenson, "let alone seen one until my caddie gave me one at Birmingham. Maybe it helped." If it wasn't the four-leafer, it must have been Dana Derouaux' shoes. Derouaux is Stephenson's regular caddie. "You see," she says, "Dana has a pair of brown shoes that we call his 68 shoes. He only brings them out when we really need them."
Superstitions aside, Stephenson is fanatically diligent about her game. "I can't stand mediocrity," she says. "I have very definite goals. Last year it was the top 20 [she missed by $32]. This year it's the top 10. I hope to be the best someday." Last winter Stephenson worked on her swing tirelessly. She often would sneak off to Phoenix, and when she wasn't-downtown cheering for the Suns, she was on the practice tee with her teacher, Ed Oldfield. As a result, her game has become almost boring in its consistency—she has missed only one cut in 68 events since joining the tour—and her stroke average has dropped to 72.71, third best to Rankin's and JoAnne earner's on the circuit.
Stephenson averages about 220 yards oft' the tee and rarely misses a fairway. Her irons are strong, her trap play confident, her putting generally accurate. "I don't make many long putts," she says, "but then I don't miss many short ones, either." If she has a weakness, it is chipping. But surely not for long. A few hundred hours on the practice tee ought to take care of that.
Golf did not always have priority. Like most Australian youngsters, Stephenson was weaned on swimming and tennis. Her father would drop her off at the tennis courts and then disappear to the golf course. At age 10 she told him he would either have to play tennis with her or she was going to play golf with him. She had a natural swing, and it wasn't long before she won just about every amateur title available in New South Wales. She turned down a scholarship at the University of Sydney, became a columnist for Sydney's Daily Mirror and eventually turned pro at 21. She played in 10 events on the Australian tour, never finishing worse than fifth, and again began looking for real competition. "I'd been wanting to come to America for as long as I can remember," she says. So she did. Palm Springs (Calif.) is home now; she spent just five days Down Under last year.
Stephenson is an intense competitor and she has set such high standards that she often disappoints herself. It is not difficult for her fans to figure out how she's doing. If the drives are true and the putts are dropping, then she's Miss Congeniality—laughing, signing autographs and chatting with the gallery in an Australian accent that floats in and out of her conversation like a confused butterfly. But when the hole is playing hard to get, whole rounds may go by without a smile. Missed putts are greeted with exaggerated grimaces. At the Colgate-Dinah Shore, a three-footer that failed on the final hole cost her about $7,000. "I have nightmares about that one," she shudders.
When she bogeyed the last two holes in the second round of her Birmingham win, she stormed out of the scorer's tent. "I was furious," she says. "I was so mad I stayed on the putting green until dark, practicing in the rain." After a recent round she was in a similar state of mind. "I had five three-putt greens. Can you believe it? I never want to see that putter again." She must have changed her mind because half an hour later she was stroking away with the offending instrument on the rug of her hotel room.
Stephenson is a health nut, exercising religiously. She also sees a lot of her hotel room during a tournament. Dinner is usually a solitary event, with only television for company. "Sure, it gets lonely out here," she says. "It's hard to meet people. But this is my job, and no matter how much I might like someone I meet, once Friday rolls around, I'm all business. Fortunately, I enjoy the pleasure of my own company."
Because of golf Stephenson has had to give up several of her favorite diversions. "The two things I miss the most," she says, "are horses and going to the beach. I would like to go riding on Mondays and Tuesdays, but then I would be too sore to play golf on Wednesday." Skiing is another thing of the past. "I kind of like to be reckless, but now I'm not allowed to be," she says. "Every time I fell, everyone would hold his breath."
But the pluses far outweigh the minuses in Stephenson's mind. Endorsements and exhibitions add significantly to her already healthy income. She enjoys the limelight and was thrilled to be on television during the Colgate-Dinah Shore. Tied for the lead after 36 holes, she got plenty of exposure. And her miniskirts, pigtails and movie-star smile didn't hurt.
This has been the LPGA's best year ever, with record purses and crowds at practically every stop on the tour. The Colgate-Dinah Shore received better television ratings than the Greater Greensboro Open the same week. And Stephenson is a good example of the new breed of LPGA pro—young, talented and dedicated. She still has lots of goals in front of her, such as winning the Open or being the top money-winner. If the four-leaf clover supply holds out and her caddie doesn't mislay his shoes, she should make it. She may even get to take a week off now and then.