Recently, we had a look at Australia’s most successful female golfer, Karrie Webb. Paving the way for Webb, her predecessor Jan Stephenson (22 December 1951) set the bar for Australian women golfers, being the most successful of the previous generation.
In fact, in one of those delicious statistics that make sports history so satisfying is that Stephenson began her LPGA professional career in 1974, the year Karrie Webb was born. Webb would have been seven or eight years old when Stephenson won the first of her three major titles, and it is more than likely that when Webb was first developing an interest in golf, Jan Stephenson would have served as a role model worthy of emulating.
Here, then, is an examination of the number two all-time Australian woman professional golfer.
Born in Sydney, Jan Stephenson wasted no time developing a sharp game. She was just 13 when she won the New South Wales Schoolgirl Championships for the first time in 1964. She repeated that win four more times. Moving up to face stiffer competition, she won three consecutive times in the New South Wales Junior Championship. Deciding that she had the makings of a professional, she immediately won the Wills Australian Ladies Open of the ALPG in 1973, and then joined the LPGA the following year, and was then promptly named the LPGA Rookie of the Year. In so doing, she followed in the footsteps of Margie Masters in 1965.
The top-level challenge of playing against the best golfers in the world, week-in, week-out placed an obstacle in her path during her first two seasons on the LPGA. She certainly made good showings, and served notice that a little tweaking and tuning of her game was all that was required for her to join the winners’ circle.
Tweak and tune she did, capturing that elusive final bit of expertise that is so razor thin in the world of professional golf that the difference betwixt earning money and going home empty-handed is frequently determined by stroke averages that must be calculated to two decimal places.
To win, however, does require a minimum margin of one stroke, exactly what she achieved in winning her first LPGA tournament, the Sarah Coventry Naples Classic, an event that was played five times in Florida before morphing through various iterations to become the Wegman’s LPGA Championship, played in Rochester, New York.
It was fortunate for Stephenson and her competitors that the tournament was played in Florida, because anyone who has even been anywhere near Rochester, New York in February knows that golf in sub-zero temperatures is not an ideal way to make a living.
When Stephenson hoisted the trophy on 8 February 1976, she had a one-shot victory over one formidable American, 42-time winner Sandra Haynie, and Judy Meister. Stephenson was paid $8,500 for the win. Her second win of the season in late April of 1976, the Birmingham Classic was her final win for the season. It was a more comfortable four-shot victory. She finished 28th on the money list with $16.053.94 (things must have been tight to require reporting cents), with the top of the money list occupied by JoAnne Carner, who won $87,000, or approximately what Jason Day can expect for showing up for a PGA tournament.
Jan Stephenson was winless on the LPGA in 1977, but she did win the ALPG’s Will Quantas Australian Ladies Open at Manly Golf Club, earning $15,000 in the process. Her next win on the LPGA was the 1978 Women’s International, a four round affair where she built such a lead as to win by four strokes despite a closing round 74. Following that, she won the 1980 Sun City Classic, beating New Zealander M.J. Smith by one stroke in Phoenix, Arizona.
Her first Major win was the 1981 Peter Jackson Classic, otherwise known by many names, but it is recognised as Canada’s national championship, in the third year of the tournament being considered a Major event. Two more victories, the Mary Kay Classic and the United Virginia Bank Classic made 1981 her best season.
She added her second Major in 1982, this time the LPGA Championship, where it was once again America’s JoAnne Carner left to play second fiddle to Stephenson’s nine under par aggregate for four rounds. One more victory followed, the Lady Keystone Open.
Jan Stephenson added her final Major, the most prestigious of the three, when she captured the U.S. Women’s Open at a challenging course called Cedar Ridge Country Club in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Typical of U.S. Open layouts, difficult conditions provided a survival-of-the-fittest test of golf, so much so that Stephenson was able to win with a six over par score and take home the top prize of $32,780.
She won once on the LPGA in 1985, and once on the Ladies European Tour and once on the LPGA of Japan. LPGA wins 14, 15, and 16 came in 1987. Her final win was the Konica San Jose Classic, where she put a five-stroke margin betwixt herself and 33 professional tournament winner Amy Alcott of the United States.
She helped found, and won on, the Women’s Senior Golf Tour. She also became one of the first woman golfers to be in the golf course design business. She was hampered in the latter stages of her career when she was mugged in Miami in 1990.
One of the inevitable consequences of success is the accumulation of critics, and Jan Stephenson had her share. Some of those critics had a field day when she made a remark to the effect that, “Asians are killing the Tour.” Other critics made an issue of the fact that Jan Stephenson was a most attractive woman, and used her attractiveness in an effort to promote the Tour. It seems almost comical in these days when sex appeal is a commonplace marketing tactic of not just women’s golf, but many other sports as well. Are you listening, Beach Volleyball?
Jan Stephenson had a total of 26 professional wins. On the LPGA Tour alone, she amassed career earnings of $3.054 million dollars, which is extremely impressive considering the purses of the day.
She currently resides in Windermere, Florida, and was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985, the same year she became the first Australian female golfer to accumulate over $1 million in earnings.