Its the controversy she created without a club in her hand.
First, there was the famous Maxfli calendar shot in 1986, when she appeared to be nude under sparse covering in a bathtub full of golf balls. She fondly remembers the debate the photograph sparked. So do the folks who keep bringing the calendar back, including Australian Ladies Professional Golf officials, who this year resurrected Stephensons bathtub photo to include in a calendar celebrating Aussie women in golf.
Then theres that other controversy, the one Stephenson sparked with her comments in a 2003 interview with Golf magazine. Thats when she made the remark about how Asians are absolutely killing the LPGA. Her criticism included the complaint that Asian players lack of English skills damaged the all-important pro-am experience. A furor followed. Stephenson never cried more over an errant shot. She said she lost 10 pounds with the stress that followed. She also lost two endorsement deals.
That controversy left scars that are still tender to the touch, a topic she doesnt like revisiting in any depth.
When the LPGA proposed establishing a mandate that its members pass an English proficiency exam last year, Stephenson was asked to comment, but she declined most of the interview requests. Though she felt a certain vindication that her concerns were ultimately something the LPGA felt compelled to address, she watched from a distance as the topic set off another firestorm.
Today, Stephenson, 57, is based in Orlando, where she is busy creating a line of clothing for baby boomers with five-time LPGA winner Cindy Rarick, working to expand opportunities on the LPGAs Legends Tour and working in golf course architecture. She counts six designs on her resume.
Senior Writer Randall Mell caught up with Stephenson at the LPGAs Corning Classic, where Stephenson made her first appearance of the season. She played just twice a year ago.
Youre still asked to autograph copies of that famous Maxfli calendar, arent you?
I still get a lot sent to me. I get a lot of fan mail with that picture. The LPGA in Australia asked me if they could have permission to use it in their calendar this year promoting womens golf in Australia. So I still get copies to sign.
You dont mind being known for posing nearly nude, do you?
I wasnt totally naked. I wore two little circles of material and a triangle with a bit of elastic. It was kind of funny. My secretary found them years later and said, `What are these? Why have you kept these? I told her, `Oh no, you cant throw those away. They were kept to prove I wasnt naked. Shes like, `Oh, so thats what you had on underneath.
Do people remember you had a pretty good playing record with 16 LPGA victories and three majors?
When Im out now, people who dont quite know who I am, they remember when theyre told, `Shes the one who did that calendar with all the golf balls. Its never, `She won a U.S. Open. Its the calendar shot. I always say theres a lot of stuff I wish I hadnt done, but posing for the calendar isnt one of them. That was a great idea.
Every single golf ball seemed strategically placed. For historys sake, tell us about the actual photo shoot.
People from Maxfli were there, it was their calendar, but when it was time for the shot, I had to clear everyone out. If I took a single breath, the golf balls would fall off me, and what I was wearing was very precariously put on me. So the photographer and his wife cleared the room. When I took a breath, the balls would fall away and the photographers wife would have to put them back. I probably sat in that tub for two hours. When I came out, you could see the dimples on my behind.
Were you prepared for how popular the calendar would become?
Had no clue when we shot it. I know it ended up selling a lot of golf balls. They were going to discontinue that particular ball. They told me they were trying to get rid of the remaining balls for Christmas, but I think they had to start remaking the ball because they sold so many of them with the calendar coming out.
The calendar created a lot of debate. It created some hostility toward you among other pros who didnt like the message it delivered about womens golf. Jane Blalock, whos now a friend of yours, was among the most outspoken players. At the photo shoot, did you sense what was going to follow? We tease Jane, because she says I should be buying her champagne because it made my career when she spoke out against it. Now, on the Legends Tour, she asked if she could use it to make a poster to sell at tournaments for charity. Its kind of cute that she asked for permission to make a poster. Back when it came out, we were almost enemies. She believed we shouldnt be selling sex appeal, and we would go back and forth in the papers about it. I dont want to say I was right, but once she got into the PR business, shed say, `Jan, I need you and Laura Baugh to do some things, and please make sure you wear something low-cut to the dinner. Im like, hello?
The memories of that other controversy you were involved in arent so fond, are they? After you were quoted saying Asians were killing the LPGA Tour, you basically went into seclusion, right?
Yes, I did. I was pretty upset. I cried a lot. That was pretty devastating. I didnt want to come back onto tour. I was trying to help (making the observations). I was trying to tell the commissioner the tour needed to do what they used to do when I came out, that they needed to educate players about what they needed to do to help the tour. I talked about how talented and beautiful the Asian players were. It got taken the way it was taken, and it really hurt my popularity. I hated to think about all the things Id done for the tour and in golf and now heres my legacy. I was pretty unhappy, but the players have been very welcoming when I come back now.
When the LPGA made an issue of language last year, proposing an English-speaking mandate, what did you think?
I had a lot of calls asking for comment, but I didnt event want to get started on it again. I was doing all this good stuff, and hoping all that would go away.
You think of your golf course design work as good stuff. Hows that going?
Obviously, its slow now with the economy. We have a couple projects that are stalled. Ive been trying to do more with the going green technology. I was asked to do a golf course on a landfill, where we are looking to re-use material there, like concrete from old roads. Also, were looking to use organic food in ways where we wont have to use chemicals, and were working with a company out of Canada where they sanitize water with no chemicals, using an electrical process that will allow us to have fish farms on a golf course. For years, golf courses havent been that green or environmentally conscious. Im really trying to build a golf course that helps the environment.
But you still like to make LPGA appearances?
Yes, I played two LPGA events last year, one at the Ginn, because it was in Orlando. Its different, though. You dont have friends out here anymore and you feel like a bit of an outsider, but I have fun.