EAST LAKE — If Jan Stephenson was at the peak of her fame today, the professional golfer, recognized as much for her exploits off the course as her prolific career on the links, would most likely be a social media star with millions of followers.
The Australian unabashedly used her sex appeal and straightforward attitude to become a pin-up star in the 1970s and '80s, appearing in posters and calendars and famously dating Donald Trump, but the petite blonde felt she never truly received the recognition she deserved for her many on-course accomplishments, which include three major championships, 16 LPGA wins and 41 career victories worldwide.
But that long overdue recognition finally arrived, as Stephenson, who now runs the Tarpon Woods Golf Club and has a home in West Pasco, recently learned she will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame during the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June.
“This is something I never thought was going to happen,” Stephenson told the crowd that gathered at the club’s Crooked Wood Bar and Grill for the announcement party Dec. 5. “But it means more to now, as the years went on and I was bypassed, because next year the ceremony is at Pebble Beach during the U.S. Open in June, so I’m glad this is the year I’m going in.”
Stephenson thanked those who have supported her while she worked to reopen the club, which caters to disabled first responders and military, including managers Mike and Diane Vandiver, stating “it’s been an uphill battle, but we’re getting there.”
After her speech, guests toasted with glasses of Jan Stephenson brand wines and rum drinks while the newly minted Hall of Famer mingled and took photos with guests, including Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce officials Jerry Peruzzi, Jerry Custin and Mark Howe and Innisbrook Golf Resort managing director Mike Williams.
Williams, who a week earlier held a ribbon cutting for the grand reopening of the Palm Harbor resort’s South Course, said Stephenson is as important a figure to the sport of golf as any male star.
“She’s been a leader in women’s golf for so long, had such a prolific career including winning majors, she was truly one of the early pioneers and arguably one of the first women’s golf celebrities,” he said. “She was able to leverage her success on the course to numerous successful business ventures off it, including turning around what was a flagging golf course here, and she’s right here in our backyard.”
Stephenson, who recently revealed Aussie actress Margot Robbie is in talks to play her in an upcoming biopic, spoke about finally being able to add “Hall of Fame” to her impressive resume.
“It’s such an honor, like the cherry on top of a career, and I was worried I was never going to get it,” she said. “People say, ‘well, it’s not the cherry, but be happy with the nuts,’ and I tell them no, I want the whole thing!”
As she and her team work to get Tarpon Woods back to full health following years of neglect — the course will host the golf portion of the Department of Defense Warrior Games in June — Stephenson said she has had little time to think about what took so long for her induction. But she does have a few ideas.
“There’s a lot of reasons, but early on they weren’t recognizing my international wins, so half my worldwide wins didn’t count,” she explained. “And I’m sure the off-the-course stuff hurt. They said I was hurting the tour, but they didn’t realize all the work I was doing off the course, for kids and charities.”
Asked if she felt like she was a trailblazer for some of the young, talented female players that followed in her footsteps, including fellow “golf sex symbol” Natalie Gulbis, Stephenson said, “Probably, but the problem is the younger girls now don’t know what I did. Natalie’s first set of clubs were my (brand). Hopefully the book and movie will really bring it all out. But I’m just really, really happy right now. I didn’t think this day would come.”