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Jan Stephenson had assembled her entire wardrobe for Sport Magazine’s 1977 cover shoot, and for good reason. It was the magazine’s special “Sex In Sports” edition, and Jan was going to be the first woman to pose for the cover. It was a major coup for Stephenson, who at the time was little more than a 26-year-old Australian prospect with a handful of LPGA Tour wins to her name.
Stephenson had been drafted by then-LPGA Tour Commissioner Ray Volpe to be the face of a new-look tour, a role Stephenson was more than willing to play, and the Sport magazine cover was going to be the first step towards realizing that plan.
About halfway through the shoot Jan was scheduled for a routine wardrobe change, so she took off her shirt and unclipped her bra, and as she looked for a new outfit, put a thin, pink linen shirt over her and tied it at the waist.
"Hey Jan, over here!" came the voice of a nearby photographer. Jan was caught off guard, but she didn’t really mind. She threw her head back and laughed, and kept her eyes locked on the camera.
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. And it's not a secret why. The picture would be considered risqué by today's standards, let alone for the cover of a magazine in 1977. Even Jan was horrified.
"When they told me they'd be using the picture of me in a pink shirt, I was confused. I was like, ‘What picture of me in the pink shirt?’ ”Stephenson said. "Then I remembered and thought,‘ Oh, no. ’"
Jan even wrote a letter asking editor Berry Sainback to use a different picture. It didn't work.
"Sorry, it's too late," the response came. "It's already gone to print."
The criticism came pouring in, but so did the attention - a currency the LPGA Tour had been starved of since its inception.
(AP Photo / David Longstreath)
Since the tour’s start in 1950 it had essentially remained a glorified money match. Prize money was extremely low - in 1976, the year before the Sport magazine cover, the winner of the U.S. Women’s Open took home just $ 9,054. The men’s winner, by contrast, pocketed $ 42,000. Journalists gave the women’s game little attention, and because revenue from spectators was all but nonexistent, the money players competed for what primarily each others.
But the Sport magazine cover changed that by quickly transforming Jan into one of the most famous female athletes in the world. It didn't take long for people to start pouring through the gates to watch her in action.
"It is her golf game that draws crowds," one newscaster said at the time. "Although it has been speculated that men don’t simply watch Jan Stephenson to learn how to improve their golf swing."
Stephenson fought the notion that she had become more sex symbol than elite athlete - and provided the results on the course to back it up. After turning down offers to pose for Playboy and Hustler, Stephenson captured three wins, including her first major, in 1981 She followed with another provocative picture in the LPGA Tour's Fairway magazine, a fashion program given to spectators at tournaments, which featured Stephenson wearing a nightgown sprawled across a bed.
She always refused to do full nudity, but after surviving the backlash of the Sport cover Stephenson considered everything else fair game. Her peers didn't always agree.
"There's a fine line between that and promoting a sex-oriented type image," LPGA Tour pro Janie Blalock said at the time, frowning in disapproval.
The following year, she married her manager on a whim after he convinced Stephenson her longtime boyfriend was unfaithful. Her request for a divorce shortly after set off an ugly legal dispute between the two men. Before the marriage, Jan had been living with her longtime boyfriend, Eddie Vossler, who claimed her marriage to manager Larry Kolb violated Vossler and Stephenson's common law marriage. Vossler was trying to have Kolb’s marriage annulled. Kolb fought that motion, since he would be entitled to a portion of Stephenson's property if she had to divorce him instead. Jan says the whole thing was a "mess." Two men were fighting over what she’d earned, a good bit of it from that photo that made her famous.
"Jan Stephenson, the prettiest girl to have a lot of golf talent, is a walking soap opera," one unnamed LPGA Tour player told the New York Times at the time. “And one must bet that, like all soap operas, if it isn't this current thing it will be something else. Soap operas are not supposed to ever end, are they? "
At one point the dispute landed Jan in an insane asylum to meet with a cult deprogrammer. Her manager, naturally, had come to believe Stephenson was brainwashed into wanting a divorce. A judge quickly ordered her immediate release, and she went on to win her second major that year.
Stephenson had been recruited to glamorize golf’s image, but those involved with the game - and many fans - clung to the sport’s stodgy roots. Stephenson became foil to Nancy Lopez, a wholesome daughter of a golf pro who played and lived with the most buttoned-up decorum. Fans loved it. The prize money soon followed. LPGA Tour players went from competing in 21 events for a combined $ 435,040 in 1970 to 38 events for more than $ 5 million in 1980. By 1989, that number had risen to more than $ 14 million.
“It was such a crazy time in my life. Everywhere I went people recognized me. I was flying all over the world every week, ”Stephenson said. "I'm sure I would have won more had I only focused on myself. But I was trying to do what was best for the tour, and I probably made more money doing it the way I did. "
Another major at the 1983 U.S. Women’s Open, six other regular tour wins and yet another saucy photo shoot - this time of her nude in a bathtub filled with golf balls - secured her status as an infamous sex symbol who doubled as one of the best golfers of her era. Perhaps more significant, though, is the example she set for future generations.
"These are beautiful, powerful, personable women who are living the dream," Stephenson says of today’s players. “You should be proud of the way you look. It's fantastic. They should do it more. "
Jan Stephenson in 2003 (The Des Moines Register)
By every discernible metric, the LPGA Tour is in a healthy state. More events are popping up, purses are growing, and fans are excited by the forming rivalry between the young trio of Michelle Wie, Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko.
Nevertheless, the LPGA Tour remains a distant second to the PGA Tour’s popularity, a fact that still rankles the LPGA Tour hard cores, which is a key reason many of the game’s media-friendly talents are embarking down a similar path Stephenson forged years earlier.
"We want our players to be accessible and to show personality, because that's what we're selling" LPGA Tour Commissioner Mike Whan says. "We're not trying to just show you the shots. We're trying to tell the stories of these athletic, attractive, talented golfers. "
Whan says the idea of sex appeal is something the tour is "aware of" but doesn’t actively pursue. He wants to leave that up to the players.
The game’s leading figures have been openly, and publicly, embracing the idea of using sex appeal to attract attention to the sport - and themselves.
Michelle Wie’s 2008 Golf Digest cover
Natalie Gulbis was the heir-apparent to Stephenson, who she has repeatedly called one of her idols. She recreated Stephenson's famous bathtub scene and has appeared in a number of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issues. Despite never earning her way onto the LPGA Tour, Blair O'Neal carved a niche posing for a series of raunchy advertisements for the golf equipment company Cobra. Michelle Wie became the first woman on the cover of Golf Digest since 2008 when she featured in a variety of different workout clothes and ballroom gowns. The list goes on.
Is this all a bad thing? Opinions are hardly unanimous one way or the other, but the question of whether golf over-sexualizes its female athletes - and feels it needs to so its predominantly male audience pays attention - is a legitimate one, especially considering the sport’s lingering stereotypes. Is this empowering, as Stephenson says, or damaging? After all, can't they just make professional golfers look like professional golfers?
"You know, I understand the criticism, but that's me and I'm proud of the work I do in the gym," 20-year-old Lexi Thompson, who posed topless for Golf Digest’s controversial cover in May, said. "I have absolutely no regrets about it."
Michelle Wie, who won the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open, agrees, adding that she thinks pros should do whatever they can to drum up interest.
“I love the big crowds. I actually think I play better with more people watching me ”Wie said. "It's the reason why I play ... to inspire other people, and it feels great."
Jan Stephenson still has one dream she has yet to realize: To make it into golf’s Hall of Fame.
(AP Photo / Osamu Honda)
It's baffling that she isn't there already. The World Golf Hall of Fame is often ridiculed because of how easy it is to get in. Until recently five people were inducted every year. Even writers adorn the Hall of Fame walls, and when golfer Colin Montgomerie was inducted in 2013 despite never winning a major, it prompted such disgust that the organization suspended its induction ceremony for a year and changed the admission criteria. This year’s class saw three golfers and one course designer take their place in the hall, and there was Stephenson, with 16 LPGA Tour wins and three majors, on the outside looking in.
“A lot of what I did was ahead of my time,” she says. "People didn't understand it and not everybody liked it. Remembering the old stuff, I'm sure that has something to do with it. "
Jan says she started down her path as a way to boost interest for the tour when it turned into something bigger. Not that she’s complaining. She enjoyed the added attention, but it hurts her to think that may be why she’s getting overlooked.
“I'll get in someday,” Stephenson, now 63, says. "I'm hopeful."
Like a campaigning politician going negative, an athlete selling themselves as a sex symbol can pay huge rewards but also cause irreparable damage. Sex sells, but it also diverts the public’s attention away from golf for women who have spent decades working at the game.
"It's frustrating for female golfers," World No. 3 Stacy Lewis said on the subject last year. "It's the state of where we've always been. We don't get the respect for being the golfers we are. "
Stacy Lewis (USA TODAY Sports)
This remains a choice only female athletes have to make. Every professional athlete thinks about branding, but for men it usually goes no further than choosing a color scheme. Tiger Woods opted for the Sunday red. Rickie Fowler made orange his signature. Bubba Watson swings a pink driver. Female professional athletes are given a different set of circumstances entirely. They either risk going unnoticed, or they deliver what the market demands and use their physical attractiveness to gain attention.
Then they're left dealing with ramifications that often come in waves, from different directions: there's sneering from those who think they've sold out but also criticism from those who expect them to play up to the unreasonable standard their new popularity seems to demand .
Jan Stephenson, like Anna Kournikova, Danica Patrick and countless others, made the latter choice, and it has defined her public image. She didn't start playing golf to get famous. She played because she loved it and wanted to win. Most people remember her in the pink shirt. She remembers herself as a gritty competitor.
“I would have to label her the player who worked the hardest on her game,” Nancy Lopez, who won the same number of majors as Stephenson and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987, told ESPN. “The whole sex-appeal thing. I don't even think that's who Jan really was. "
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