2010 Golfweek for Her: Stephenson's golf ball tub photo shook up the golf world
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
“How many golf balls would it take to fill a bathtub?”
Dave Branon was speechless when he fielded the question.
“It’s sort of like, ‘What’s the meaning to life?’ I mean, there is no answer,” said Branon, who was in his South Carolina office nearly 25 years ago when Dick Zimmerman called.
Had he not known any better, Branon, then-chairman of the Dunlop Slazenger Group Americas, would have thought the man at the other end of the line was nuts. But Zimmerman was the legendary “photographer to the stars,” and Branon trusted him implicitly.
“Fifty dozen,” Branon suggested.
Not that Branon had ever contemplated how many golf balls would be required to cover a woman in a bathtub.
And not just any woman, but rather Jan Stephenson, then 33 and at the height of her popularity, even if on that fall day in 1985 it was uncomfortable to be there.
“I think I sat in that tub for 21⁄2 hours,” Stephenson said. “When I got out, you could read Maxfli on my butt.”
Not that the photo shoot was intended for reading material.
“Controversial,” said Branon, now retired. “But it was a great marketing tool.”
The December photo in Stephenson’s 1986 calender was not the one that ignited an LPGA firestorm, however. That came five years earlier, when Stephenson posed for Fairway magazine. Lounging on a bed in a white dress, she revealed plenty of left thigh.
Tame by today’s standards, but in the early 1980s, some took exception, such as colleague Jane Blalock. She even penned an op-ed piece for The Miami Herald, wondering whether the LPGA was selling “sex or golf?”
Not that Stephenson didn’t have her backers. Most notably, then-LPGA commissioner Ray Volpe.
“I’m a man. I know what is attractive,” he told Stephenson.
The Aussie agreed to market herself “to help the LPGA,” she said. “Ray told me it was perfect, that people couldn’t say I was doing it just because I couldn’t win.”
Indeed, Stephenson was a mix of athleticism (16 career victories, three majors) and extraordinary sex appeal, and overwhelmingly she was embraced.
Branon remembers a dinner with JoAnne Carner when her husband, Don, offered a criticism of Stephenson.
“JoAnne interrupted and said, ‘I’d like to look like her for just 30 minutes to see what it’s like,’ ” Branon recalled.
Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth also spoke in favor of Stephenson, and Blalock became a great friend.
“She was the first to make golf glamorous,” said Blalock, who runs a Boston-based sports-marketing company and is the primary mover behind the Legends Tour for yesterday’s LPGA stars. “We need
to all thank her.”
If that’s her legacy, Stephenson can live with it, sometimes begrudgingly.
That’s because there’s room for regrets.
“I was so busy doing so much (for the LPGA), I think it hurt my golf, although I know it helped my career,” Stephenson said.
Still, she takes pride in having opened doors, maybe not by knocking them down, because that wasn’t her style. Instead, she employed style and good taste.
“Jan was very much aware of who she was and what she was,” Branon said. “I think she had an intuitive sense of what she was worth to the LPGA.”
For 25 years, players have been reaping the dividends of Stephenson’s investment.
“Jan was ahead of her time,” said Natalie Gulbis, one of those who has taken advantage.
Hard to believe, but Gulbis said she never has seen the famous golf balls-and-bathtub photo.
“One time, somebody actually asked me to (re-pose) it, which I declined,” Gulbis said. “I should Google it
and look it up, but I can get a pretty good visual of what was going on.”
For the record, Stephenson was not naked – at least not totally because “they gave me two little circles and
a triangle” for . . . well, you can surely figure that out.
But all these years later, Branon laughs at a second call he received from Zimmerman.
“He said, ‘My wife just sat in the bathtub and 50 dozen balls hardly covers her.’ ”
Branon called his sales rep in Los Angeles, Steve Holmes, and told him to hit every pro shop, every golf shop and every store, and bring as many Maxfli golf balls as he could find to Zimmerman.
“When Jan came out of the dressing room – or, un-dressing room, I guess – there’s Zimmerman and Steve Holmes.
He told me it was the best sales assignment he ever had,” Branon said.
It was OK with Dunlop officials, too.
“I think we sold more than 75,000 dozen golf balls with that calendar,” Branon said. “It was great photography – and a beautiful model.”
One who is owed a debt of thanks from today’s players.