Nancy Lopez on Jan Stephenson

In the 1980's, Jan Stephenson became golf's first tabloid star, with her sex appeal and charismatic self-promotion. Amid intense media attention, her colorful and controversial life off the course often overshadowed her determination to win championships.


Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez took the LPGA by storm in 1978, when, as a rookie, she won nine tournaments, including five in a row. That year, she also got to know Jan Stephenson, the Australia native who had been the LPGA's rookie of the year four years earlier.

Heading into the 1980s, as the LPGA began to appear more on television, Lopez and Stephenson became the two most popular players on tour. All these years later, they are still revered by fans. What was it like to see the Stephenson phenomena up close?

Q: What were your first impressions of Stephenson?

A: When I first came out on tour in 1978, we were both with International Management Group [IMG]. I did a lot of outings with Jan, Laura Baugh and some other players who were new young players on the tour. That's the first time I had met Jan. I remember I thought, "Wow, Jan is so pretty." But I think sometimes when you are as pretty as her, people don't always take you as seriously. I never talked to her about that, but it's a shame. Because she was really a strong, good player.

But glamour aside, I would have to label her the player who worked the hardest on her game. She was very dedicated. I can remember at tournaments, she was always out on the putting green.

AP Photo

Nancy Lopez recalls that "Jan [Stephenson] was one of our glamour girls on the tour, and people loved to watch her play the game."

Q: What did Stephenson bring to the LPGA?

A: Jan was one of our glamour girls on the tour, and people loved to watch her play the game. I think she brought a lot of fans to the tour. I know Jan faced some criticism when she did the golf balls-in-the-bathtub photo shoot, but it was good for golf. There was nothing wrong with the photo, and her being able to show the sex appeal she had was a good thing. I think there was probably some jealousy about it -- some players wanted to be in her shoes.

Q: How much pressure did golfers feel to promote the tour back then?

A: It's something women's golf has always had to face. We always have to do a little bit more, and work a little bit harder to promote ourselves and our tour. It's always been like that, and I don't think it will ever change. So you know you have to give that little extra: sign more autographs, go to more sponsor parties, dress a certain way, always think about how you're presenting yourself. That can be a lot of pressure.

Jan always accepted that. I look back now, and I think she was willing to do things for the tour that maybe weren't even part of her actual personality. Like the whole sex-appeal thing ... I don't even think that's who Jan really was, but she understood that it was good for the LPGA. So she did it.

Q: Did you feel like you and Jan always had to be "on" for fans?

A: I don't remember Jan ever not being cordial to everyone. She could have had a bad day sometime along the way, of course; everybody has those days. Where you maybe don't want to smile or sign autographs, but you still did it. I always looked at it this way: It wasn't the fans' fault if you played poorly. So I signed the autographs always, because I thought it was important to always promote the LPGA tour. And I think players that really "got" it, did that. And Jan was like that.

Q: Was it ever difficult to be a celebrity?

A: Sometimes guys would follow you all round on the course, and just stare a lot. And you never got really comfortable with them being around. It was awkward. Guys would even follow you back to your hotel at times. I am sure Jan had to deal with some stalkers, and had she had some other issues [a mugging in 1990 left Stephenson with a severely broken finger] that really were scary.

Q: How would you describe Stephenson's competitiveness?

A: It seemed like she always hovered near the lead; she was always there in the top 10, top 20. She was pretty consistent with her game. She was very committed; I would see her out there practicing long after everybody else was gone. That's the kind of work ethic that she had. The only thing about Jan that bothered me was that she didn't give herself more credit as a player, because I thought she was really very good. She worked so hard on her putting, and was a very good putter. But if you told her that, she'd get mad at you and say,"No, I'm not!"

Q: What kind of personality did Stephenson have when she was on tour?

A: Jan and I weren't really close; we didn't hang out that much. But we respected each other. I knew that she was good for our tour, and I appreciated all her hard work. Whatever she gave to the tour in the glamour department, I was glad, because we needed it. I was so successful because I had the support system of my dad, who taught me the game. Jan had a great mom and dad, too. They were just good people; they walked miles watching her. And they let her be Jan. I don't think they ever tried to control her life. They were just there to support her.

Q: How would you describe the legacy of you, Jan and other players from the 1950s?

A: At that time, I thought we were making a lot of money. I thought, "Oh, we sure came at the right time." When I look back now, though, I think, "Wow, we missed out." (Laughs)

But I think the tour needed the personalities then. Jan and Laura Baugh, Marlene Floyd was another. And players like Patty Sheehan and Pat Bradley ... when they made a putt, they were pumping their fists, and there was excitement in their attitude when they played. I think people may miss that a little bit, because there's not as much of that. Which is not taking away anything from the players today, because they are very good players. But people love to celebrate with you when you make a putt and you show jubilation. They want to be with you.

Jan was somebody the crowds loved, and she showed that back to them.

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