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After All This, Golf Is Easy : LPGA: A mugging was only the latest in a series of painful events for Jan Stephenson. That she can return to the sport at all is a welcome relief.

May 17, 1990|MARYANN HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It's as if someone or something were trying to get Jan Stephenson's attention. For what, though, remains unclear.

Or maybe it was Stephenson's time to experience pain and suffering, if there is such a period. Stephenson's recent streak of bad circumstance has been unrelenting.

Her father, Frank Stephenson, died of cancer in December of 1988. He was buried in the family's homeland, Australia, on Stephenson's birthday. A year later, Stephenson's longtime caddie, Rick White, also died of cancer.

Then, in January of this year, Stephenson's ring finger was splintered when she was robbed in a parking lot in Miami. She and her husband, Eddie Vossler, were on their way to a Phoenix Suns-Miami Heat basketball game. Simply out for a little fun.

Instead, Stephenson suffered a career-threatening injury. Doctors were concerned she would never be able to grip a golf club well enough to compete. And they withheld that concern from her for months because it came at a time when Stephenson, at 38, was groping for the strength to grip life again.

Today, after 10 months of physical therapy and emotional rest, a seemingly resilient Stephenson will rejoin the LPGA tour at the Planters Pat Bradley International tournament at High Point, N.C. Undaunted, she's grateful for another chance.

"You're fortunate if you can get through life without these kind of things happening," Stephenson said. "But it does happen and people say, 'Jan, fathers die.' Yes they do. But when my father died, it was very hard for me. Then my caddie died, and my brother-in-law was killed in December of '87.

"It kind of wakes you up to the reality about life. You can get so carried away, and I do, I really live a wonderful life. I mean I had everything go perfect for so long. I have been fortunate to have a great relationship with my family, and to have been pretty healthy.

"And I have always appreciated it, but after this, you just never know."

SUDDEN DEATHS

From the time Stephenson was 10, she traveled through life as the nucleus of a support group.

Frank Stephenson wanted his daughter to be an athlete. So at age 7, she trained to be a swimmer. Then it was tennis. But when Frank got interested in golf, Jan did, too. "Of course, I wanted to do whatever he wanted, and I loved golf," she says.

Stephenson's mother, Barbara, had been a professional dancer and a good golfer. But Stephenson says her parents' lives had always been centered on her.

"My father would pick me up from school, and we would go practice golf and come home," Stephenson said. "We would eat and work on my homework together. Then we would go to the driving range at night. I spent all my time with my family."

As a professional, Stephenson's team included Eddie, whom she married in 1982, and her caddie, Rick.

"I always thought of my father as the quarterback," Stephenson said. "We would work on my game together and he would watch me play all summer. My mother would make breakfast for me while I was out working. Ever since I can remember, it had always been a team. That's why I think people did not understand why I was having so much trouble with my father's death. Sponsors would say, 'C'mon, everyone loses their father,' but this was devastating."

When her father's condition was diagnosed as cancer, Stephenson's parents didn't tell her. She wondered why they weren't coming to watch her play so often.

"In August (of 1988), I got a letter from my mother that said I had to call this doctor," Stephenson said. "And when I called the doctor, he told me he didn't think my father would last the week. I was in a state of shock. Last a week from what?"

Every chance Stephenson got, she would fly home to Australia, a situation she says led her to contract mononucleosis. But her father wouldn't let Stephenson stay with him in Australia. He wanted her to keep playing golf.

The day before Frank Stephenson died, he talked with his daughter on the phone and made her promise she would finish a tournament in Puerto Rico. When he died the next morning, Stephenson made good on her promise and finished second.

The next year on tour, she started off playing well. But she couldn't get over the heartache.

"After Dad died, every time I would look up on the golf course, I would remember where he would stand, in certain places among the trees. People who didn't know he had died would come up to me and say, 'Where's Frank, I have his beer.' And I just couldn't handle it. I would just walk off the course."

Stephenson's mononucleosis was diagnosed in early January, and doctors urged her to take three months off to recover. She refused. Finally, last August, beaten down and exhausted, she left the tour.

Of the 22 tournaments she started in 1989, she finished 12. She never discussed why she pulled out of tournaments, and many people thought it was because of the lingering back and neck problems she had suffered from a previous car accident. Eddie didn't want her harping on it, and Stephenson said she didn't want to make excuses.

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