PLAINFIELD, N.J., JULY 24 -- It has been another routine year for Jan Stephenson on the LPGA Tour. She won a tournament and led another until she had a car wreck just prior to the final round. One doctor told her she might not play golf again, so she threw a fit until another told her it was just a few broken ribs. There is nothing particularly new in all that; it beats getting rained on or poked by a pine needle.
That is why, despite a mass of white-blond hair, she is commonly referred to on tour as Black Bart. Perhaps it's not a particularly fitting nickname, but it seems appropriate for a woman who has sometimes inadvertently and sometimes purposefully done as much to publicize the LPGA as any player in her 13-year career.
Whether she's posing for a calendar or whipping around in her single-engine plane, something interesting usually is going on in a life that might be called jam-packed.
"I don't think anyone has had the life I've had," she said earlier this week during the U.S. Women's Open at Plainfield Country Club. "I wouldn't wish it on anyone else. But I think it's been good for the tour and good for myself. I'd like to just putter along, but it's been exciting, with all the controversy and everything."
That Stephenson has amassed more than $1 million in earnings and 14 victories in the midst of all this confusion is something to be wondered at. It also raised the question of what she might have done had the last few years been less adventurous.
Often it has seemed the injury or controversy struck when she was on the verge of playing her best golf. This season, she was on her way to perhaps her best year yet when she had the car wreck in May as she was leading the S & H Classic in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Stephenson's best year to date was 1983, when she won three tournaments including the Open to earn $193,364. This year she has already earned $106,470, despite missing eight weeks because of injuries suffered in the accident. But ill health still pursues her; she seemed certain to miss the cut at this week's Open with rounds of 80 and 79.
What is most disappointing to Stephenson is that she was contemplating easing off the tour had she accomplished what she wanted this season. Now she is already looking towards next year, intent on a career-best before she reduces her schedule.
"Without question this was my best year," she said, "until that girl ran that red light."
The ironic part about the accident was that Stephenson, not known for her caution, was actually driving at a safe speed. Leading the tournament and coming off a victory just the week before in Santa Barbara, she was contemplating the recent success when the accident occurred, including the fact that her putting, usually a weakness, had finally come around.
"The funny part is that I was going slowly," she said. "I said later, why wasn't I going my normal speed? I probably would have been okay."
Stephenson was struck by another car that ran a red light, she said. She broke four ribs on her left side and pulled ligaments in her back.
"I was thinking about how everything was going so right," she said. "I was leading, the putting was going good. Then whammo. It just goes to show that you should never be satisfied with your putting."
At a St. Petersburg hospital, Stephenson was wheeled into a waiting room and left alone for almost an hour. It was a Saturday night and there were more pressing injuries to attend to. Once she had been X-rayed ("They took about 30. I glowed."), one doctor told her she might have a compressed vertebra and possibly would not be able to play golf again.
"That's when I kind of lost it," she said. Stephenson asked to see a specialist, who told her she was not seriously hurt. So she immediately inquired whether she would be able to play the final round the next day.
"They kept telling me how lucky I was," she said. "But I wanted to know if I could play the next day. I told them to get my shoes and my putter out of the trunk, just in case."
She was not able to play the round, but she has recovered fairly quickly. She was absent a total of eight weeks, and this is just her fourth week back on tour full-time. The accident, though serious, ranked only about fair to middling in her catalogue of disasters.
Perhaps the most controversial point in her career came in 1982, when she filed for an annulment of her marriage to Larry Kolb, then filed suit against him charging that he had tried to commit her to a mental institution to gain control of her finances. The annulment was granted, the suit was dismissed, and she is happily married to Eddie Vossler.
There have been other bizarre injuries. At the time she was trying to annul her marriage, she suffered a broken foot. While playing in a tournament, a pine needle accidently fell into her ear and pierced her eardrum.
"Then I've also had back problems over the years," she said. "It always seems like it's when I'm playing well. If it's going to rain one afternoon and not the other, then I'll get the afternoon tee time the day it rains. All the other girls would say, 'Oh, God I've got the same tee time as Stephenson.' "
With this swirl of activity in her life, it is easy to see why Stephenson, 35, would contemplate cutting back on her schedule. Her chief aim now is to make 1988 her best season, so that she can spend increasingly more time on a less hazardous hobby: course designing. She is the first of the women pros to experiment in that field, working with Perry Dye, son of famed designer Pete Dye. They have a total of five courses in development, and ultimately she wants to design a first-class club exclusively for women.
That, however, depends on how 1988 turns out. Ideally, Stephenson would achieve the year that she wants and then ease into a reduced schedule of 15 tournaments or so a year. But she qualifies her statement by saying if 1988 is not the year she hopes it is, she will probably continue playing because she feels some of her best golf is still ahead of her.
"If 1988 doesn't turn out, I'll keep playing," she said. "Until I feel I can't compete. If it's still there and I still enjoy it, I'll play."