Jan Stephenson may be a part-time pinup girl with a 40-carat smile, but she proved last week at the U.S. Women's Open in Tulsa that she doesn't mind getting dirt under her fingernails and sweat on her brow. In conditions that lend character to a tournament and test the mettle of the competitors, Stephenson, 31, had the grit to win. She marched stoically through triple-digit heat and carefully marshaled her game on a Cedar Ridge Country Club course that baffled the best on the women's tour. While the others melted, Stephenson persevered to win the tournament she has coveted since she was a little girl in Sydney, Australia.
"Why do we have to hit practice balls before school?" Stephenson would ask her father, Frank. "Because," he would say, "someday you might win the U.S. Open."
It all came true on the broiling griddle that was Cedar Ridge. Stephenson practiced whenever she could, morning, noon and night, putting on the rug in her motel room after dark. "This is the tournament I want to win," she kept saying. And she did so by coming home Sunday with a final-round three-over-par 74 for a 290 total, one shot better than JoAnne Carner and Patty Sheehan. Cedar Ridge was so troublesome that it yielded only three rounds under 70 all week, including a 68 by Carner on Sunday that almost won her the tournament. The 44-year-old Carner had opened with an 81 on Thursday, after which she was pronounced "too old" to tolerate the heat. "I wish it could have been a 54-hole tournament," quipped Big Momma—the last 54.
Sheehan, who had a three-shot lead after 36 holes but closed with rounds of 76 and 73, spoke for the rest of the roughed-up players when she said, "What a course. I feel like I've been in a washing machine." Stephenson's winning score was the highest since Hollis Stacy won the '77 Open with a 292 at Hazeltine in Chaska, Minn. However, it was also a bit misleading. With two holes to play on Sunday, Stephenson was four over par with a three-stroke lead.
Wisely, she played those last two holes via the safest possible routes, happy to settle for bogeys. She got them, but not before a brush with disaster when her long second shot to the 17th hole left her between a tree and a road with a tricky lob shot over a bunker to the green. She made a flawless shot, got down in two putts—and then bogeyed the final hole for victory. "I was choking," Jan said afterward. "My husband, Eddie, said he could tell how nervous I was because my lower lip was white. I haven't really made it a secret how much the Open meant to me. It meant everything."
For Stephenson, the Open began in a weird way. On Thursday the stodgy USGA officials "suggested" to vendors at a booth on the Cedar Ridge grounds that they not display a poster that shows Stephenson with her skirt blown up above her thighs, coyly captioned: PLAY A ROUND WITH ME!!. Stephenson insists she is trying to shed her playgirl image, but she certainly knows how to snare a headline. After her first-round 72, USGA press officials ignored her, so she marched into the press room, grabbed the microphone and announced: "Jan Stephenson is in the interview room." Reporters came running. Says one LPGA official, "Jan is ruthless. She knows what she wants and goes after it."
As adept as she is at self-promotion, Stephenson is even better at managing a golf course. And, at 5'5" and 115 pounds, she had a formidable opponent in the 6,298-yard Cedar Ridge layout. The course played so tough that when architect Joe Finger visited his creation one day, a bitter tournament official demanded to know, "Do you play golf?" Cedar Ridge has Bermuda rough, thick stuff that makes you feel as if you're hitting out of steel wool. The greens, as always in an Open, were hard and closely shaved. And every day an Oklahoma sun toasted them golden brown.
En route to her 81 Thursday, Carner four-putted the 15th hole, after which she said drippingly, "I love golf." Stacy went six over par on the first eight holes. "Instead of my yardage book, I was reaching for my flight guide," she said. [Cathy Whitworth, the tour's alltime leader in victories but never an Open winner, was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard after an 80-76. She was three strokes off in her figures. Four, if you count heatstroke. Beth Daniel withdrew with a back problem, and Donna Caponi quit with a neck injury. "Cedar Ridge sounds like the name of a hospital anyway," said Marilyn Desjardins, a tour statistician.
Pat Bradley's third round Saturday illustrated Cedar Ridge's treachery. Bradley shot a 31 on the front nine, tying an Open record. She even made a hole in one with a five-iron on the 145-yard 6th hole. But quicker than you could say "Nice going, Pat," Bradley came in with a 40 on the back side. "This was a bittersweet round," she said.
Stephenson shot a 71 Saturday and swept into the lead, two shots ahead of Sheehan and Debbie Meisterlin, who was pleased just to be in the neighborhood. Meisterlin had not finished better than fifth in nine years as a pro. Last year she got married and quit the tour. Now, after an annulment, she is playing golf again—and quite well.
On Sunday, in what may have been a first, Meisterlin was paired with Stephenson in an "All-Annulment" group. Stephenson's first marriage, to her ex-business manager, Larry Kolb, was annulled last year, and she later married oilman Eddie Vossler. While her father was running for the clubhouse, sick to his stomach, Stephenson went into the water twice in the first five holes and momentarily fell into a tie with Meisterlin. But from that point the two went in opposite directions. Meisterlin shot an 83, while Stephenson hiked up her slacks and bagged herself an Open. On the 6th hole she nudged a chip shot down a hill to save par, and after that, the day was hers. Over the next 10 holes she made nine pars and a birdie when she cut a four-wood to within 2½ feet of the pin on the par-4 12th.
Only one little thing bothered her, Stephenson said later, after hugging her kinfolk and taking a call from President Reagan: those shots she hooked into trouble on the front nine. "I can't figure it out," she said. "I guess I have to go practice tomorrow."
Call her ruthless or relentless, Jan Stephenson knows how to win.
For Stephenson, who almost left the ground on her follow-through, practice meant perfection.