Yes, people will never forget the 1977 Sport magazine cover or the 1986 bathtub picture with nothing but her and golf balls. Jan Stephenson will always be remembered as a trailblazer in that regard, and the impact of her unflinching individuality on the LPGA Tour and its future stars is undeniably part of her legacy.
But that’s not enough of a resume for enshrinement into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Stephenson was selected on the strength of her accomplishments on the course, which are remarkable and sometimes lost in the commotion of her exploits off of it.
From 1974-1987, Stephenson was a force on the LPGA, winning 16 times including three Major Championships. In the midst of a glorious generation that included future Hall of Fame Members Amy Alcott, Pat Bradley, JoAnne Carner, Beth Daniel, Betsy King, Nancy Lopez, Patty Sheehan and Hollis Stacy, Stephenson was every bit their equal on the course, often outdueling one or several of them on the way to victory.
And while she was a naturally gifted player with uncommon power and an aggressive mentality on the course, she paired it with a relentless work ethic.
“She practices longer than anyone else, and then she goes home and works on her putting on the motel carpet until it’s time to go to sleep,” Mike Reisman, then a press liaison with the LPGA, told the New York Times in 1981.
She began winning early in her native Australia. She was introduced to the game at 10 years old and immediately found an immense talent. Among her myriad amateur accomplishments, she won five consecutive New South Wales Schoolgirl Championships as a teenager, along with three consecutive victories in the NSW Junior Championships.
She turned pro in 1973 and promptly won the Australian Open. She joined the LPGA in 1974 and racked up six top-10 finishes to earn Rookie of the Year honors.
By 1981, Stephenson had earned four LPGA wins and several more worldwide, but she was still looking for a major breakthrough. She got it at the 1981 Peter Jackson Classic, but it didn’t come easy. She needed birdie at the par-5 18th at the Summerlea Golf & Country Club in Quebec on Sunday to avoid a playoff with Pat Bradley and Nancy Lopez. The usually aggressive Stephenson was considering going for the green in two, but her father Frank was on her bag and he convinced her to lay up. She did, and it paid off — she sank a 12-footer for birdie to take home the title.
That opened the floodgates for Stephenson. Despite entering the 1982 LPGA Championship at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Center outside of Cincinnati with a messy personal life full of legal struggles with her soon-to-be ex-husband, she was able to put that aside and put together a dominant, wire-to-wire victory.
In 1983, she reached even greater heights at the U.S. Women’s Open. In the sweltering, triple-digit heat of Tulsa’s Cedar Ridge Country Club, Stephenson earned the biggest achievement of her career by holding on for a one-stroke victory over JoAnne Carner and Patty Sheehan.