PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Jan Stephenson is about to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. That’s not surprising, given that she won 16 LPGA tournaments including three majors, among them the 1982 LPGA Championship and 1983 U.S. Women’s Open. She also has 41 world-wide wins, including 10 titles on the LPGA’s Legends circuit.
That’s a lot of wins — but there’s more.
She’s also involved in countless philanthropic projects, one being particularly special. On April 1, 2017, Stephenson, through her Crossroads Foundation, bought a golf course, Tarpon Woods Golf Club in Palm Harbor, Fla.
Not all surprising is for a touring golf professional of Stephenson’s stature to own — or at least partly own — a course. Again, though, Stephenson’s course is particularly special. She bought it to help others. That’s why it is officially owned by Stephenson’s foundation.
"We wanted to make it a veterans’ golf facility," said Michael Vandiver, executive vice president of the foundation. "We didn’t acquire it for personal gain. We wanted a facility to accommodate veterans and first responders."
Many of Stephenson’s golf memorabilia items have been used to decorate the clubhouse, but there’s much more to her involvement than that.
Though her purchase of Tarpon Woods was no secret, Stephenson has doubts that even her fellow members of the LPGA Legends Tour realize just what the purchase meant.
"I’ve always had a charity,’’ said Stephenson. "I had a junior program before this, but now juniors are well taken care of. There’s lots of programs for them. I had been an ambassador for the disabled and the blind and this is for the veterans. I would like to teach them all about golf and to even help them to have a career. This place became available, and we could devote it all to them."
Tarpon Woods was built as a high-end private club in 1971 with Lane Marshall the course designer. In the 1990s, the course was called the Lost Oaks of Innisbrook and owned by the flourishing upscale resort about 8 miles away.
Over the years the course was particularly popular when the New York Yankees held their spring training nearby. The Yankees’ owner, George Steinbrenner, particular liked to play the course. It remains a par-72 that measures 6,613 yards from the back tees, but lots of things changed, and not for the better, as Tarpon Woods was converted to a public venue.
The club was certainly no hot spot when Stephenson’s foundation took it over.
"It was a sand pit. It had no grass," recalled Stephenson. "No one was playing it, and it was losing a lot of money. It's reputation was bad. The maintenance irrigation system didn’t work and the clubhouse had only two lights that worked."
Then things really got worse.
Hurricane Irma hit, and that slowed down the restoration efforts. Those were being done by with a hands-on approach that even included Stephenson coming over to trim hedges and pull weeds. Her brother Greg, who is a first responder, spent a few months painting the clubhouse.
Vandiver is tackling a bunker renovation in an innovative way. He’s trying to raise $90,000 via corporate and individual donations. He says one bunker can be renovated at a cost of $2,360, but he would like to find 18 corporations to donate $5,000 for the project. The bunker renovation isn’t just for aesthetics. The bunkers need to be re-designed in a way that will accommodate disabled players.
Vandiver, who is also president of club manufacturer Razor Golf, and his wife Diane are also deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of the club. Also, Stephenson is also part owner of Razor Golf and Vandiver also works for Jan Stephenson Events — a side business that puts on concerts and other entertainment events.
Tarpon Woods is another of their joint ventures, and it’s been a rewarding one as public play is picking up and thousands of veterans have already benefitted from visiting.
"We’ve got a long way to go, but people have thanked us for what we’ve done already," said Stephenson. "We’ll probably get 1,400 rounds a week in the winter. A lot of people wouldn’t have played here, but now they’ve seen it’s in pretty good shape and it’s a value ($46 per round in peak season)."
The club has a new golf cart fleet, and veterans and first responders get 20 percent off on greens fees as well as discounts in the well-stocked pro shop and restaurant.
Stephenson has organized monthly clinics for the disabled and about 50 — ranging in age from 14 years old to 80 — turned out for a clinic designed for blind golfers. She has also hosted a fundraiser — the Jan Stephenson Invitational Pro-Am — that included Robert Gamez and Cindy Figg-Currier, a couple of former tour players.
The Australia-born Stephenson, who has lived in New Port Richey the last seven years and obtained her U.S. citizenship the same month she acquired the course, has another goal for Tarpon Woods. She wants a building to be built specifically for teaching golf to the veterans.
Len Ziehm spent 41 years as the golf columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times before his retirement in 2010. He is now the golf columnist for the Daily Herald chain of Chicago suburban newspapers. He also contributes to Chicago District Golfer and the Illinois PGA website.