Forty years on from her US Women’s Open victory, Jan Stephenson reminisces about her greatest victory, her extraordinary career and provides an update on her latest battle: breast cancer.
[Main photography by David Silva/Studio Commercial]
Nothing can stop Jan Stephenson. Not age, not injury and definitely not cancer.
July 2023 marked 40 years since she captured her most cherished prize, the US Women’s Open trophy. Australian Golf Digest spoke with Stephenson twice in recent months, firstly at the Australian Open in Melbourne last December and again in early May via Zoom from her American base in Florida. In between, the golf legend was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She’s pleased to share that the early rounds of chemotherapy have gone well, producing the doubly happy result of reducing the cancer while inflicting minimal side effects. Although, ever the golfer, all Jan wants to do is go and hit balls, but not being allowed to yet is the one side effect that is bugging her.
In her speech delivered during her induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame four years ago, Stephenson said she was pleased to be part of the “most colourful and competitive era in LPGA history” in the 1980s and ’90s. Displaying full humility, she failed to reference that a large part of the reason for the circuit’s colour was her. In so many ways, Jan made the modern LPGA.
Cancer treatments aside, she has about as full a plate as a 71-year-old can manage. While much of this interview was to reminisce and reflect, it only touches upon several aspects of what is a multi-faceted life and career. It’s easy to overlook that Stephenson spent time working with Pete and Alice Dye in course design and combined with Hollis Stacy, Jane Blalock and Sally Little to launch the Legends of the LPGA tour. Plus there’s her Crossroads Foundation that supports disabled veterans, and ventures into lines of wine and spirits.
What we did get, however, was a full dose of Stephenson’s passion and energy for life and golf, which no ailment seems to be able to take away from her.
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Australian Golf Digest: On the health front, it’s been a big few months for you since we saw you in Melbourne at the Australian Open. It would be remiss of me to do anything other than ask how everything’s going.
Jan Stephenson: Everything’s going [well]. [The doctors are] pretty happy with what’s happening. I’m very lucky. I don’t know why I haven’t had any of the reactions you normally get with chemo. I haven’t had any nausea or any diarrhoea. I haven’t lost my taste and appetite, which they’re surprised at. They think it’s maybe because I’m so strong. The good thing is the few biopsies that we’ve done since I started, the tumours are all disappearing, which is wonderful. So I only have two more [treatments] to go, and then I get a six-week break so I can get back to practising.
There’s the past champions dinner at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. They always honour the past champions, so that’s my goal for that one. Then it’s the 40th anniversary of me winning the US Open, so they’re having a celebration for the past champions at Pebble Beach.
I asked the doctors if I could do both of those. They said, “Yeah, you get two months off, no matter what, anyway.” So I get to do those. Then once they said that, I’m like, I could almost get ready for the Women’s Senior Open and play. It’s definitely a goal.
Right now (early May), I am not allowed to practise because my body unfortunately rejected the port I had. They had to put a PICC line in and so I can’t play pickleball, can’t do any golf.
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How much golf were you playing before your diagnosis?
Well, I wasn’t playing much golf before. I own a golf course in my foundation’s name, so I’m still there now every day, because I’m getting ready to put new grass down on the greens. So I went and reshaped the greens on the front nine today. I’m working in the golf business, but I don’t get a chance to practise or play. At my age, I’ve lost so much power. If there were more tournaments to play in, I would’ve stayed into it.
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You’re clearly not slowing down at all.
Everybody’s surprised, because at the golf course that my foundation owns, I do a wine club once a month, and we’re having a Kentucky Derby party. I really didn’t think I would be doing a lot of that, because [chemotherapy is] every three weeks. The first week, they knock you down to 90 percent, and you have to be careful of your immune system. Knock on wood, I’ve been really, really lucky. I don’t know whether it’s because now it’s like I’ve got to hurry up and get everything done, just in case. So I’ve been so busy. I want to finish the greens.
I just signed a deal with Innisbrook Resort to design their short course, which I’ve been specialising in putting in new water technology. I’m involved with a water technology company that I’m really excited about, because it cuts back on the amount of water. But it gives oxygen to the root system, which is really important.
It’s all just energised me to get more things finished.
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It’s 40 years since that US Women’s Open at Cedar Ridge in Oklahoma. Which memory stands out most?
It was very hot. I remember that, because everybody was complaining of the heat, which didn’t really bother me. I just remember walking onto the driving range on the Tuesday, and I was like, “Where is everybody?” They said, “Well, it’s 108 degrees today.” I’m like, “So I can have the whole driving range to myself?”
But of all the weeks I was going to win an Open, I wouldn’t have thought it was that one. My clubs got stolen on the Tuesday before I flew in. Luckily, I had done the press conference for the USGA – the year before I’d gone there and played, so I knew the course a little bit.
It was also one of those weeks when my parents were there. I talk about it a lot when I do interviews, but I’ll never forget this one story… My father worked for the transport department, and he had shift work so that he could take me to school and he could take me to golf before and after school. I remember it was August, and it was cold and miserable where I lived in Balmain in Sydney. I could sometimes take the ferry across to Fort Street [High School]. I remember it was so cold and miserable, and I just said, “When Dad gets home, I’m not going to practise today.” I’ll never forget him coming in, and he sat down, put a hot water bottle at my feet, and said, “If you practise on a day like this and do something you don’t want to do, that’s the things that make you win a US Open.” When he said that, it was like this carrot he would dangle. I was probably 14 or 15. It probably didn’t mean that much, but the fact that it was like, Wow. This is what makes you win a US Open.
So my parents were there when I won the US Open, and my dad said, “I don’t suppose you remember that remark?” I said, “Are you kidding? I’ve never forgotten it!” So we were all were crying at the time. Of all the Opens and all the majors, I never thought I’d win an Open, because you know how patient you’ve got to be. It’s a six-hour round every day. It’s an endurance test. The USGA used to set the courses up so hard, and there were too many people playing. I’m like, I don’t have the patience for this. So it was really, really special to win that Open.
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What were the circumstances to do with your clubs being stolen?
I was in Chicago, seeing my coach that Monday. I practised, and then I was staying with some people and I had borrowed their car. On Tuesday morning, I came out to pack my bag, get on the plane and go to Tulsa. There was no car. I came out and said, “What did you do with the car?” They went, “Well, you had it!” Someone stole the car with my clubs in it. It’s not like now when you can call up and FedEx stuff in and they’ve got trailers there, where they can make the clubs all back up.
I was representing TaylorMade, and their headquarters at the time were in Wisconsin. So they drove down a driver, and then I took the clubs of the man I was staying with for something to play with. When I got there Tuesday, the normal van we had that travelled had already gone on to Boston, which was the next week. It was too far to drive all the way down with the van to Tulsa. So I had to play with a borrowed set of golf clubs – and I won.
When we went to play the practice round, we realised the clubs were too stiff. I couldn’t get the ball in the air. So we were like, “Well, I’m just going to have to play to the front of every green,” which is what you should do when you play Opens, anyway. I was always way too aggressive and always went for the pin. That’s why I used to get so mad at the USGA that they’d burn out the greens, and I’d always be over the back of every green. So we said, “We are just going to have to play a different kind of game.”
It was pretty funny until the last day. I was leading in greens hit with these stiff clubs, this little set of Wilson Staff clubs, because I couldn’t hit them crooked. But I couldn’t hit them in the air. I double-bogeyed a hole early on, the fourth hole, because it was over water and uphill and I couldn’t get it over. I remember going back there [years later] and playing. I could just hit a little hybrid and it was no problem at all. But in those days, you didn’t have them.
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Both those stories – the clubs and the heat – it sounds like you had an ability to adapt to difficult situations. Is that a fair assessment?
Well, if you’ve got the right attitude…
It’s like now. I didn’t want this [cancer] to happen. But you’ve just got to suck it up and go for it. It was the only major I really wanted, that I’d wanted since I was a kid. So it was important. I couldn’t use another excuse. I just had to do it.
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Now you’ve been joined by Karrie Webb and Minjee Lee as US Women’s Open champions from Australia. What has that meant for you?
It’s really important that we carry on that torch for the women, because it’s amazing they’ve done that. They’re really doing really, really well, even more so than the men. It’s very competitive, and both Minjee and Hannah Green, they’re so talented. I started that junior program, and now Karrie’s taking it to another level. I passed it on to her. I had Sarah Kemp and Sarah Jane Smith who I brought over to America. That’s something the girls love to do, because to mentor with Karrie is incredible.
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You first played with Karrie Webb very early in her career. Could you see anything then that indicated the stardom she would reach?
Oh, absolutely. I just didn’t realise she’d reach it as fast as she did.
I think I played with her in her very first professional event in Queensland at the Ladies Masters. They said how young she was – she was 19 or something. I’m like, No! There’s no way she’s 19. She’s way too mature for 19, because she had a lot of patience, which is really hard when you’re young. She played well. You could tell she was going to be something. She had this quiet confidence.
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Did she ever lean on you for advice?
Not at all. In fact, we had a run-in at the Australian Open a few years after she turned pro – maybe even the next year – because somebody had asked her in the media tent, “Was Jan someone you looked up to?” She said, “No, I didn’t even know she’d won a tournament. I thought she was just a calendar girl and did calendars.” It was a big controversy. Of course, then they paired us together, which was what they wanted. But then that night, she called me and had me come over to her room and said, “I’m so sorry. IMG had me look up your career and your statistics, and I’m so sorry that I didn’t realise you’d won. I thought you were just a big name with the calendars.”
Then when she won her first Australian Open, I was pretty close; I was probably in the last few groups, but I cancelled my flight and went and bought a bottle of champagne and waited for her. Then she didn’t realise I’d stood there and waited and she just walked off. I was like, Wow, I cancelled my flight and everything for her. But then the next day she called me and said, “I feel so sorry. They told me what you did, and I just walked right by you.” Then she said, “Can I come spend the week with you to get away?” I had a house in the Florida Keys, so she and Kelly [Robbins] came down. We spent the week diving for lobsters and getting away. So we straightened it all out, and it was great. Ever since then, we’ve been very close.
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Do you consider her to be Australia’s best golfer ever, male or female?
Without question. She could still be competing if she really wanted. She didn’t really play much last year, and she went out and beat Annika in the Senior LPGA Championship. I tease her about it all the time, because she had said when she turned 40, she would never play golf, she would never still be competing. When I was 40, she’d ask, “Why are you still playing golf?” I said, “You’ll see when you get to 40 that you’ll still want to play.” So every time I see her now, I’m like, “How old are you again?” She says, “I know, I know. I love it.”
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Take me back to your early days on the LPGA Tour. What did the circuit look like in 1974?
It was totally different. Some of the time, the golf courses weren’t in very good shape, and in those days everybody would drive their own car. I was too young to really rent much anyway, so I bought a car. Everybody had their own CB [radio], like the truckers. They’d say, “This is the hotel to stay in. We’re all going to stop here.” It was really small, kind of like what it was when we would go to Japan in the ’80s and ’90s. We had small fields, 30, 40 players. So it was very close.
When I was a rookie, I wanted to play so badly, but I didn’t like it. The greens were all different grasses every week and I didn’t really have any friends. I really wasn’t that crazy about America at the time. I really missed my family. But in ’74, I got Rookie of the Year, so I played OK.
But when [commissioner] Ray Volpe came on board and changed the tour, it changed my position with the LPGA. He came from the NHL, and he was commissioner of the [ice] hockey. He said, “We need to market this. We need to teach people how talented everybody is.” He totally took the tour to another level when it was struggling.
I was starting to play well, so he sat me down and said, “We want you to be the image of the LPGA.” They hired a big marketing firm in New York, moved the headquarters from Atlanta to New York City, and he said, “I’m going to set up appointments and golf and dinners with big companies, and we’re going to sign big contracts. I need you [in order] to do it.” I’m like, “Well, it’s going to take away from my game.” He goes, “This is what’s going to save the LPGA. They are going to be on bended knees when you get done, because we’re going to make you a superstar and make the tour very glamorous.” Which is what he did.
I was seen every week with a different celebrity. They would call AP and the wire, and I’d be at dinner with a football player this week and a baseball player the next week. He did an unbelievable job; he made me a household name before I even really started playing that well. Then, of course, Nancy Lopez came along and, between the two of us, we pretty much had our lockers full of all these requests and interviews and things to do. I was on Johnny Carson all the time. It was a very glamorous, fun time. But it was also really tiring.
People nowadays don’t realise how hard I worked to help the tour. Every Sunday night, I’d be on a plane. I’d have a ticket from the LPGA to go someplace and do [something to support the tour]. It takes away from your game. I just wonder how good I could have been. But in those days, you’re still getting paid a lot of money to do corporate outings. I was getting paid what was equal to second-place prizemoney to go play in a men’s member–guest and things like that.
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If the commissioner’s hand-picked you, did you feel you couldn’t say no? And what was the reaction from the other players?
I did feel a sense of duty, no question. The commissioner said, “This is what it’s going to take to make the tour. Otherwise, it’s going to be where it is. Who knows how long it can last, struggling? But you need media exposure and we need to get the sponsors.”
The other players didn’t like it at all. It was a really, really hard response. I remember calling Ray Volpe and saying, “The players, I walk into the locker room, and they’re talking about me, because it’s dead silence when I walk in. They don’t like what we’re doing and what you’re doing.”
At one of our player meetings, he says, “I don’t think you realise what Jan’s doing.” He had the numbers. “She’s bringing 10,000 extra people before the tournament starts. Yes, OK, it’s all about Jan and they’ve got pictures of her Tuesday, Wednesday before the tournament starts. But what you don’t realise is what that’s doing – and it means it’s working, what we’re doing. She’s bringing all that attention, yes, to herself and to the tour. But she’s the one doing the work, and it’s really hard work.”
They came around in the end. When we formed the senior tour, I had players – once they’d turned 45 and 50 – that said, “Oh, we had no idea how hard you work.” But at the time, it was so new to women’s golf, and they kept saying, “Is this taking away from women’s sports? We’re trying to show that we can be a woman athlete without all this sex stuff, and you’re setting us back.” I had a lot of opposition early on.
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How else does the women’s game differ then versus today?
It feels like a true professional event. It feels like when you go to a PGA Tour event. They all travel with trainers and have the vans to work out. They have sport psychologists and coaches and all the equipment. Everybody is so focused on the sport, which is fantastic to see. The talent that’s coming from the LPGA Tour is quite remarkable because of it. It’s the new technology, it’s social media and it’s fun to see.
It’s interesting, they keep saying, “What would it have been like if you’d had social media back then?” You think of how many people I had [around me] then. Paige Spiranac recreated the bathtub picture, and the response – because some people didn’t even know about its history – a lot of people said, “Wow! This is brilliant!” Then others said, “No, Jan did this back in the ’80s.” Of course, they all hadn’t been born yet.
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How many times have you been asked to recreate that photo?
Who would’ve thought that one shot would cause so much [reaction]? But it’s been fantastic, and it’s great to see. I was trying to say, “Hey, I’m so glad that Paige did it, and it’s wonderful.” Any kind of promotion, no matter what, is good for golf, and it’s good for women’s golf and good for women’s sports. I learned that from Ray Volpe early on. It is important to be out there, especially with so much competition for people’s attention.
I can’t think of how many times they’ve talked about that picture. In fact, at my club, we used to have the picture in the men’s locker room, but it got stolen so many times they had to laminate it and put it on the wall with screws.
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What’s your take on the place in the game of someone like Paige Spiranac? Have you met her?
I’ve played golf with her. She tried to make it, I think on the [Epson] Tour. They asked me to play in the pro-am, and I got paired with her. I was really impressed with her game; she hits it really well. I was waiting for her to kick off and try to get on the tour. She never did, and that just shows you how much talent there is, because there’s a fine line between making it and not.
It’s not like she can’t play, and if you take advantage of the situation… that’s what she’s done. She’s a golf influencer with the sponsors and a superstar, and whatever it’s going to take to help is great.
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Which of your non-major victories do you cherish the most?
I loved the Australian Open in ’77. My mum was caddieing for me and I think it’s the only playoff I ever won, against Pat Bradley. I think we went five holes.
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You would go on to suffer injuries and incidents, including a car accident and a mugging, which permanently injured your left hand. What were the physical and emotional impacts?
Well, ’87 was devastating because I was finally going to be No.1 and I made it there for just five days. That really hurt. But I did come back and win the last two events, so I felt like I’d gotten my game back. I then went through a struggle with my father dying, my caddie dying and then getting mugged. The mugging… I’ll never be able to recover. My hand has always been damaged, and to lose 30 yards because you can’t hold on with your left hand, it’s pretty amazing that I did finish in the top 30 in the ’90s and maintain that for a few years.
They took my career away when I really wasn’t ready for it to be over. That’s probably why I’m always trying to do so much. I still love to play. I still love to practise – I like to practise a lot. Now this [cancer], it’s like taking something away that’s been my whole life. That part’s hard to adjust to.
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Has your perspective on it changed compared to how you felt at the time? Were you angry at the world?
I was very bitter for a long time, especially once I got divorced that year, too, or I filed for divorce and then took two years to get out of it. That was a tough time in my life, because I didn’t have my golf, and my personal life because of the mugging was pretty tough. It was hard to face that he was only there for the money and the stardom, even though I kind of knew it. So it’s been hard. The hardest part of it all is not having a successful personal life.
That’s one thing I regretted and the times when I had an opportunity to have someone and I put my goal first, thinking it had to be first, when I probably could have worked through both like they do now. My biggest regret is I don’t have a personal life still to this day. That’s probably why I have so much work to do, because I keep really busy. I finally met someone again in 2013, and I got engaged. Then he died. So since then, I’ve just stayed away from all of that. I was very bad at picking men, or they picked me. I’ve been unsuccessful in that part of life.
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At one time you dated Donald Trump. What was that experience like?
He was really quite fun. He’s got a very sarcastic, funny sense of humour. When you go anywhere with Trump, it’s a big affair. Everything he does is larger than life. You don’t just go to dinner. Everybody knows when you’re going to dinner, and it’s a big deal. We went to 21 and Régine’s and all these places in New York City. Every time I flew into New York to meet with Ray and meet with his potential sponsor the next day, [Trump] would take me out to these incredible places for dinner. We’d go play golf at Winged Foot. We’d take the helicopter down to play golf somewhere, and it was very exciting to be with this big, glamorous superstar bachelor.
I can’t imagine what it would be like nowadays. The media would be crazy. But it was pretty exciting. I remember one time when we were talking about trying to get the LPGA started, he called Ray Volpe and said, “Well, do you want me to buy the LPGA? Will that make Jan happy?” Volpe called me and said, “We could actually have him buy the LPGA…” I’m like, “What are you talking about?”
Everything he did was glamorous, except when we got to the stage when we were going to get more serious. He wanted me to give up my game, give up on the tour. When we argued about that later, he said, “I didn’t want you to quit,” but he would want me to drop everything to fly to Paris to have dinner or something like that in the middle of a tournament, which he did one time. I’m like, “No, I’ve got a pro-am to play.” He’s like, “Well, all these other women would do it.” I’m like, “Well, of course they would. But my family have given up so much for me to make it that I have to give it a shot.”
I saw him many years later. We talked about it, and he said, “Well, you could have been the club champion at Winged Foot. We would’ve been divorced by now, and you would’ve had umpteen million. Then you could have gone back to golf.” I said, “It doesn’t work that way. You can’t just stop and start.” Then I said, “Yes, but I would never have won a US Open.” That would shut him up, because I’m sure he would like to have won a US Open.
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Did you see a future American president in him at that time?
He had talked about it even back then, because he’s always loved America. He’s always loved New York City.
Everything he did was larger than life but everywhere he went, he was really a gentleman. In those days, he didn’t have a cellphone, but all the waitresses, everybody would be giving him their numbers everywhere he went. He would just brush it off. He was a gentleman that way. I just liked him because he was so sarcastic. He was so funny. That’s why when I see some of these tweets, I understand that’s the way he is.
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What’s your assessment of the state of the LPGA today?
I’ve met Mollie [Marcoux Samaan] quite a few times. She’s lovely. I don’t want to say she’s in over her head – I know they wanted to have a woman commissioner, and she had a great record at raising money with the colleges. I don’t know that she understood how big the LPGA is and how vast the sponsorship package is. It’s hard to get sponsors. I tried it with the senior tour for quite a few years. It’s hard in this day and age and without TV. It’s unfair, in a way, that the PGA Tour gets paid by television to put tournaments on, and yet the LPGA has to pay television to get on. That’s not right.
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You were finally inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2019 after several close calls.
That was special, because you’ve got to meet certain criteria to even qualify. Then every time it looked like I was going to get in, it gets down to the vote and I didn’t get the vote. It was Nancy Lopez, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. When Arnold died, they put Annika [Sorenstam] in as the ones that would then make the final decisions.
Nancy always had to call to say I didn’t make it. I’d be in the finals, but I wouldn’t make it. She’s very sweet. She was crying every time she called me. So when she called this time, I know she’s going to tell me I didn’t make it. She was crying. I’m like, “It’s OK. Don’t cry. I’m used to it by now.” Then I heard Jack and Gary laughing in the background. She said, “No, wait! I’m trying to tell you that you did make it.” I was like, “What?” She said, “Yeah!” I said, “But you were crying!” She said, “I was crying out of being happy for you, because you deserved it.”
I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock, because it was really special for me to have that happen, because it is still a recognition. That was really important for me. Luckily, like they said, they changed the rules and they recognised my international wins. Then I breezed in.
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What is the secret to getting more women playing golf in general?
It has to look more like fun. The three things you see in all the statistics is women will say, No.1, golf is too hard. It is. It’s very difficult. No.2, it takes too long, and No.3, it’s too expensive. Those three things come up every time. The hard part of is because they haven’t got the tees right; they don’t handicap that part of the game well enough.
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Forward tees can seem like an afterthought in course architecture. What are you doing differently?
I’m glad we’re going to talk about it, because I’ve felt that way for years. In fact, we even tried on our senior tour to have different tees, because the only two ways you can really handicap a golfer is with handicap or with the tees. Someone like me, if they had forward tees for different age groups, I would still be working on my game to compete, because it’s really about that part of the game. That’s what’s so great about golf.
The tees have never been fair. People don’t realise how short the average woman hits it. I was in the middle of redesigning a course in Indiana, and I’m like, “Why are these forward tees, in such bad shape?” They said, “The men’s seniors use them now.” I’m like, “But there’s no tee for women’s seniors?”
You know what I’d like to see happen? It’s the way I’m doing the new short course. It’s not about gender. It’s not about age. All it is, is if you hit your pitching wedge 100, these are the colour tees you should be playing from. It just goes by how far you hit the clubs.
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What’s next for Jan Stephenson?
I’ve always wanted to come back home to Australia, always wanted to retire back home. Unfortunately, the healthcare here is so fantastic – and this is where my insurance is – that I don’t know. We talk about that with my family.
I still miss my family. I have dual citizenship, so it’s not that. But I’d like to spend more time in Australia. That’s one way or the other. I don’t know if I should say “retire there”, because I guess I’m probably never going to retire. I’m always going to do something, and I would like to be able to have more excuse and more reasons to come home. No matter what, when you’re born there, it’s still home. My coach Gary Edwin’s there, and I talk to him all the time. I still send my swing videos to him.
I love walking on the beach at the Central Coast. The more I’m home, it makes you appreciate it more.