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.
"I haven’t really made it a secret how much the [U.S. Women’s] Open meant to me. It meant everything." -Jan Stephenson
She wept with her parents afterward, recalling how her father told her as a little girl that if she kept practicing, one day she might win that very tournament.
She even got a call from President Ronald Reagan. ”The President said he thought Patty Sheehan was going to catch me, and then he said that I gave him a pleasant afternoon watching the tournament on TV,” she told the New York Times afterward.
Her play on the course combined with her looks and vivacious personality provided many afternoons like that for fans across the LPGA, leading to several marketing opportunities off the course.
As the LPGA searched for a new image in the mid-1970s, commissioner Ray Volpe seized upon Stephenson’s appeal. In 1977, she agreed to pose for the cover of Sport magazine’s “Sex in Sports” edition. The cover, which would be considered risque even by today’s standards, shocked the nation.
“It’s a little tough to describe viral pictures in the age before the internet, but this picture, in every sense of the word, went viral,” wrote USA Today’s Luke Kerr-Dineen in 2015.
It sparked a fiery conversation around the game and the country about how best to sell the LPGA to the masses. It continues to this day — there are echoes of Stephenson’s controversy every time any LPGA player from Natalie Gulbis to Lexi Thompson to Michelle Wie appear in a non-traditional image.
But while Stephenson enjoyed exploring opportunities off the course, it was always golf first. That was her foundation.
“She was never, even in her prime, given credit for how good a player she was,” said Golf Channel analyst Jaime Diaz. “She was looked at as the ‘Glamour Girl’ who was taking a shortcut to fame, when in fact, she was a grinder who dug it out of the dirt as much as anybody.”