Maybe Playing Alongside the Men Isnt So Bad

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The year of the unisex golfer has just about come to an end. Prior to the season, a woman had not played in a mens tournament in 57 years, not since the days of one Babe Zahararis Didricksen. Then this year ' whoa! ' no less than three have jumped in, playing every professional tour in the United States and Canada.
 
Lets see ' at first, we knew about only one. Suzy Whaley qualified to play at Hartford when she won a PGA club pro tournament late last year ' albeit playing from the forward tees while the gents played from the deep stalls. But then, Annika Sorenstam got the idea in January, actually hinting on the Golf Channel the first time that she might do it. Lo and behold, she did it at the Colonial.
 
Next, the kid ' 13-year-old Michelle Wie ' played first the Canadian Tour, then the Nationwide Tour. She remains a prime target to carry on with this ' providing she continues to improve.
 
Oh ' did we say three?? Make that five ' the Champions Tour welcomes their female when Jan Stephenson plays this week in the Turtle Bay Championship in Hawaii. And the Korean Open will have Laura Davies teeing it up.
 
Regardless of how I try, I cant get in a righteous snit over Stephenson playing. I suppose anyone who considers it a shame that old women play with older men is at least partially right ' there are certainly other places for Jan to play without bothering the gents.
 
But maybe in Stephensons case, her situation is different. Maybe the reason is because a kindly gentleman ' yes, a senior golfer ' gave her HER start in golf. Something inside me says she deserves to play, if only for this man. I wish ' and she really wishes ' that he were here to see it.
 
That man was her father. I say was, because he died in 1988. Jan was crushed, distraught beyond belief.
 
He worked for the Australian government in the transportation department in the city of Sydney. Jan and her parents lived in downtown Sydney. Jan was still very young when her father took her out to play for the first time.
 
Dad worked the night shift. He would toil all night, then come home and wake up Jan early in the morning for her golf. She would get up, hurriedly dress, and then go practice. Eventually dad would drop her off at school after she finished hitting golf balls.
 
Dad would then go to bed, sleeping while Jan was in school. But he would be right there at 3:30 sharp, waiting once again to pick her up and take her to play golf. No, she didnt feel pressured ' she loved golf!
 
He was absolutely the best dad anybody could have ever had, she says now, remembering oh-so-well those days as a schoolgirl.
 
One day, dad came home in the early-morning hours and Jan didnt want to get up. He shook her gently and said, Come on, weve got to go. No, said Jan, its too cold today. She didnt want to go practice.
 
You see, their house had neither air-conditioning nor heat. A cold wave had swept through the area and now the chill outside was foreboding, while the bedcovers were so warm and toasty.
 
Her father sat on the edge on her bed for a moment. Then he spoke.
 
Ill tell you what, he said. If you get up right now and come practice, you might win the U.S. Open. It was enough ' Jan said, Aw, OK, and straggled out of bed.
 
Years later, Jan had occasion to remember that little speech. Eighteen years later, in 1983, she did indeed win the U.S. Open. And her father recalled so vividly that time back in Sydney when she was 13.
 
Dad said, I dont suppose you remember that cold day when you were a child, Stephenson related. I said, Dad, Ive never forgotten that day. Thats why I got out of bed. I wanted to win the U.S. Open.
 
Jan and her father had a very special relationship. He caddied for her when she swept through the youth ranks, winning five consecutive New South Wales Schoolgirl Championships, then continuing to win four consecutive New South Wales Juniors. He was there by her side when she turned professional at age 21, winning the Australian Open.
 
He was there when she came to the United States the following year, in 1974, and finished runner-up in the LPGA qualifying tournament. He watched her finish in the top 10 six times that year and be named rookie of the year.
 
He was Jans caddie for the first five years she was on the LPGA, until 79. He was her own special guiding light, but when he felt she was self-sufficient enough to make it on her own, he dropped back into the shadows.
 
She also tells the heart-breaking story of her next caddie, a man named Rick White. Rick was excellent, but late in the 89 season, he had a sore throat and requested a couple of weeks off. He was having trouble walking up the hills. Jan sent him to the tournament doctor to have him examined, then she was off to play in Japan.
 
When she returned home, she got the terrible news ' Rick had died of lung cancer. She was in hysterics.
 
He didnt want me to know how ill he was, she said. He kept telling people, I dont want Jan to know. I dont want to disrupt her. If only I had known, I might could have done something for him.
 
This week, she will play with the men. Shell probably laugh, tell a lot of stories, reminisce about the old days all the things that people do when they get a few years on them.
 
But she has already been to the grave and back with men. And she has been to heaven and back with her father. Somehow, Jan Stephenson playing alongside the men at the Turtle Bay Championships doesnt seem like a bad idea. Dad would love it.
 
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