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True Legend hits town

Thursday, July 3, 2008

STILL SWINGING: 1983 Women's U.S. Open champion Jan Stephenson answers questions at The Loft in Horseshoe Bend June 29. Photo/Mullins
You're standing over a 10-foot putt with your club championship on the line.

Suddenly your knees don't feel as steady as they did just awhile back on hole 17. Come to think of it, your arms feel a bit like Jell-O now, too.

So as you grit your teeth and try to pull yourself together for just a split second so you can hit that putt on 18, you think, 'Man, Tiger makes this look so easy. He never sweats.'

Think again.

"There is not one person, including Tiger (Woods) -- I'm pretty close to him and live where he and Mark O'Meara do -- that doesn't get the jitters," Jan Stephenson said. "He told me he had the shakes when he made that putt at Bay Hill. And I had the reputation that nothing bothered me when I'd make a putt to win a tournament. They'd say, 'Look how cool and calm she is. She's tough.' I remember one time at the Hersey Classic, I hate playing in the rain, and if I didn't make the putt, we were going to have to go to a playoff in the rain. So I was so nervous. It was a tough putt, about 12 feet down hill. I was shaking so much that I thought if I grounded my putter I would accidently hit the ball. That's how much I was shaking. Those nerves never go away when you have to make a putt to win a tournament. But I made it and people said, 'Look at her, she wasn't bothered by it at all.' But you just get used to that feeling and having to control it."

And control is one thing Stephenson knows plenty about.

The 1983 Women's U.S. Open winner was in the area June 29-30 to promote the Horseshoe Bend Invitational, the LPGA Legends Tour stop Sept. 28-29 at The Golf Course on Turkey Mountain. Stephenson spent a whirlwind 24 hours in the area, stopping in Horseshoe Bend and Cherokee Village for meet-and-greets before flying to Little Rock to tour Arkansas Children's Hospital, the charity the Horseshoe Bend Invitational will benefit.

Stephenson's rookie year in the LPGA was 1974 and she racked up 16 wins on the tour, including three majors, the last being the Women's Open in 1983.

She also won the 1982 LPGA Championship and the 1981 Peter Jackson Classic, which was her first LPGA major. A month after capturing the Peter Jackson Classic, Stephenson bagged the Mary Kay Classic by shooting a career-low 64 in the final round. Stephenson won the event by 11 strokes, setting the record for largest margin of victory in a 54-hole LPGA event. Stephenson, a Hales College graduate, notched eight holes-in-one on the LPGA Tour, the second most all-time in the LPGA.

And now, the Australian sensation is enjoying life on The Legends Tour.

"This is like a second career for a lot of the players," she said. "We're so appreciative to still be able to compete. It's (Legends Tour) like having a second time to say goodbye to everybody."

Made up of winners of over 600 LPGA tournaments, including 55 majors, The Legends Tour started in 2000 and is focused on showcasing the still-amazing swing of some of the greatest women golfers of all-time.

"We play six events. A lot start as Pro-Ams and build their way up," Stephenson, the 2007 Handa Australia Cup winner said. "We'd like to build up to 10 or 12 events and then stop. We want to make sure that we don't get too diluted, which is what Arnold Palmer said happened to the men's Senior Tour."

But playing on golf courses is not the only thing that keeps Stephenson busy these days -- she also designs courses.

She is the first female touring professional to get into the golf course design business and to date, has designed six courses.

After getting her start working with Pete Dye's golf course design business, Landmark, participating in over 35 golf course designs, Stephenson started her own business and is now concentrating on golf course re-designs.

"I love to design courses. I think someday that I'll probably be recognized more for my course designs than I will for winning the U.S. Open. I'm doing one in California right now with recycled cart paths. We're not using chemicals on the grounds and the club house is solar-powered and we're also using Lithium batteries in the carts, so they're solar, too. We're really trying to not use any chemicals at all, which is hard. Everybody wants to play on a course that looks like one they see on TV, but that costs a lost of money and requires a lot of chemicals. We're trying to achieve that look without the use of chemicals."

Stephenson still competes in some LPGA events and she realizes the tour that she broke into some 34 years ago is vastly different from today's model.

"The LPGA Tour is just so different today," she said. "Now the players go straight from high school into trying to make it to the tour. The girl that won today (Inbee Park, winner of the Women's U.S. Open June 29) is just 19. We were still in school then. I'm older than half their (LPGA players) mothers. It's become a big business these days. Players like a Michelle Wie come out with an agent and manager and sports psychologist. They don't have much contact with the other players, so it's not as much fun as it used to be."

Same thing could be said about getting older. It's not much fun, either. However, Stephenson has not let age, nor a vicious attack keep her from the greens she loves so much.

"You do lose strength and flexibility as you get older," she said. "But I got mugged in 1990 and my left side was damaged, so I had no choice but to change my swing. I had to totally change my game. But if I would not have been forced to do that, I would not have been able to play because of the injury. And actually, I think my swing has gotten better. Loss of strength and flexibility you can overcome if your technique is better. That's one thing about golf -- it's not all about power. There's the mental part, the technique and the touch. But, technique is the most important thing."

Stephenson is not hesitant to voice her opinion on women playing on the PGA Tour with men competitors.

"I think it's wrong. It's still a powerful game. Anaka (Sorenstam) had her reasons for doing it, and it put her on the map. Michelle Wie capitalized on it for a $19 million dollar contract, so that was great for her and probably good for women's golf," said Stephenson. "But I think in the end, it's rare that a woman can play on the PGA Tour. There's just no comparison between men and women in golf. Men are just so strong and power is just such a huge part of golf."

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