In the 1970s, the Ladies Professional Golf Association was struggling to attract attention and stay alive.
As a women’s sports product in a sports media environment with mostly male fans, the LPGA basically had one option–sell beauty.
Jan Stephenson, a true golf talent with bushy blonde hair, smooth skin and an athletic body, had the beauty that the LPGA needed, and she agreed to use it to help sell women’s golf to a wider audience.
Stephenson joined the tour in 1974 and won three LPGA majors in the early 1980s. But she is best remembered as the beautiful face of the sport from magazine covers, calendars and even a 1981 appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
Her decision to use her beauty to help sell the sport is a big reason why the LPGA survived its early growing pains and evolved into an international entity.
Today, the tour offers millions of dollars in prize money and global acclaim for its best players, who come from all over the world.
Some modern LPGA players, such as American golfer/model Natalie Gulbis, have still used beauty to build their own brands and the sport’s brand.
But others, like Swede Annika Sorenstam, who earned more professional victories and prize money than any other female golfer before retiring in 2008, are known simply as great athletes.
Stephenson helped make the Sorenstam route possible.
Before the annual Jan Stephenson Golf, Rum & Wine Event at Forsgate Country Club on July 20, Stephenson, now 67 and a rum and wine entrepreneur, reflected on her legacy.
She knows she would have won more tournaments and majors if she had not agreed to become a national beauty symbol. She would have had more time focus on golf, she said.
But she doesn’t regret her decision at all. The tour, and the sport as a professional entity, may not have survived and offered future generations of women so many opportunities.
“When I first came over here (to America), the tour was really struggling,” said Stephenson, who grew up in Australia. “Then we had a new commissioner come on, Ray Volpe. He chose me to be the face of it and of course he wanted to do the sex symbol thing.”
“That part of it was really hard work,” she added. “He told me, ‘You’re going to get in the Hall of Fame for that, because you’ve really turned the LPGA around.'”
Stephenson got inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in early June of 2019, but not because of her beauty. She got in on her golf merits.
“I was glad to see they recognized my international wins so I could get in,” she said.
Now Stephenson no longer has to make sacrifices.
Her acclaimed company is Jan Stephenson Wine Spirits.
She can sell her wine and rum, and run her Crossroads Foundation, which raises money for veterans and first responders, without posing for attractive photos designed to draw the attention of men.
At Forsgate on July 20, Stephenson held a clinic, a luncheon and a barbecue in the evening. Tickets for the day were priced at $145 for Forsgate members and $160 for non-members.
Even on the hottest day of the year, with temperatures in the 100s at the course that is located in Monroe Township, the event still drew a crowd and raised thousands for Stephenson’s foundation.
“They’ve had me two years in a row and I appreciate that,” Stephenson said of the Monroe Township club.
Thanks to Stephenson and other female athletes from previous generations, current female athletes don’t have to become beauty symbols to survive and thrive as pros.
The U.S. women’s soccer team just won the 2019 FIFA World Cup and got additional attention for bringing a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer for equal pay, not for posing as beauty symbols. The Women’s National Basketball Association now receives coverage from popular media outlets like The Ringer and FiveThirtyEight, and they aren’t discussing how the players look.
Stephenson is aware of just how much things have changed, and she is not resentful, like some older athletes are about their younger successors. Stephenson is happy and satisfied that her sacrifice meant something.
“Now it doesn’t have to be about beauty,” she said. “But if women want more and more of that, they have to have more women follow it.”
“Because men are still 80 percent of the ones watching women’s sports,” she added. “So if you don’t want to do that (sell beauty), women have to support women.”