In 1992 she completed something of a “Grand Slam” when she was leading money-winner, player of the year and winner of the Vare Trophy awarded to the professional with the lowest stroke average.
Pepper also represented the US with rare distinction in six Solheim Cups against the Europeans. Indeed, her record of 13 wins, two halves and only five losses is a telling indication of a renowned and often loudly expressed competitiveness (there has surely never been a golfer with a more appropriate surname). Twice she emerged from the biennial contest with a 100 per cent record.
Post-retirement, the upstate New York native was, for eight years, a much-respected and informed voice on the NBC network’s golf telecasts. Now employed part-time by ESPN, Pepper is also an independent member of the PGA of America’s board of directors. And she has just completed her third children’s golf book. Player, broadcaster, administrator, author – as CVs go, that’s a pretty impressive and diverse body of work.
So Pepper’s brain is one worth picking. And happily she has never been afraid to say exactly what she thinks. Which is why we asked her some questions, with particular emphasis on the game’s sometimes-shameful relationship with the female gender.
Should the currently all-male Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews admit women members?
My take on what the R&A needs to do is much the same as it was with Augusta National. Would it be great for them to have women members? Of course. But they have to be the right people. By that I mean the R&A have to look at what their club stands for. Then find people who can help with that direction and philosophy.
I’m not so sure it is ever right to tell people that they have to do something. Which is why I would not presume to tell the R&A exactly whom they should admit. That is for them to decide. When the right time and people come along, it will happen naturally. So it would do well for the R&A to look at what Augusta National did and speak to those who made the final decision on who would be invited to join. From everything I’ve heard, both Darla Moore and Condoleezza Rice have made a positive difference within Augusta National. The same needs to be true at the R&A.
Do men really putt better than women and if so, why?
They definitely do. At the professional level, a lot of that has to do with the surfaces each putt on week in and week out. On the women’s tours there has tended to be an enormous variety and change, neither of which you see on the men’s tours. In other words, there just wasn’t the same quality control on the ladies’ circuits.
It wasn’t until maybe 12 years ago that the LPGA hired an agronomist. Before that, we arrived and putted on whatever we found when we got there. I can remember one year at the Du Maurier event – which was a major – we putted on what was literally green dirt. Not only was there no quality control, the LPGA didn’t even seem to know there was a problem.
So that is a huge factor. But the gap is closing. The greens on the LPGA Tour are today both better and more consistent than they used to be.
Can you see a woman ever playing on the men’s tours?
It’s not realistic simply because of the strength factor. It is possible in the occasional event and on the right course, as Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie have already proved. In the States, it is doable on courses like Colonial or Hilton Head, which are relatively short and have many dogleg holes. But I don’t see that being possible over a longer period on longer courses.
Rough is a huge factor. We simply don’t have the strength to hit from long grass like the men do. Plus, any woman playing against the men would have to be a lot less conservative on and around the greens. So many courses on the PGA and European Tours have deep bunkers and big sloping greens. So you have to be more aggressive in your choice of shot in order to score well. That’s a big shift in philosophy for most women.
Should the women have a world tour?
We are nearly there already. The LPGA schedule already goes to Australia, Japan, Asia and Europe. In fact, it’s my bet that many LPGA players’ passports are more like bibles these days. I know players who have had to send for more pages. [LPGA commissioner] Mike Whan carries two passports. One is always in the process of getting visas, the other is in his pocket.
But the best thing about this trend is that we get to see the best players from every tour competing against each other on a regular basis. Which has made them better players. That is how sport at the highest level should be.
Any advice for the perennial under-achiever who is Michelle Wie?
I’d like to see her get her own roof. She needs to make her own decisions and not get up in the morning to find mum and dad already in the kitchen. That is societal, of course. It is the Korean way. They have a very tight, bonded culture where it isn’t normal for kids to be on their own. Plus, Michelle has been subjected to very high expectations, where there is a conflict between her life on tour and her loyalty to her family and upbringing.
It’s a shame because the women’s game has needed her to play well. Which isn’t to say it is too late for her, but time is getting short. The shame is that, away from golf, she is a very happy and bright girl. But the game is all she has ever known. Which is a little sad.
Is playing the Women’s US Open one week after the men’s and on the same course a good idea?
There are some downsides, but more up than down. On the upside, we are going to have a great opportunity to compare the men’s and women’s games on the same course and under the same pressure. There will be some turf issues for the women, but Pinehurst is sand-based so that shouldn’t be that big a deal.
What will be most interesting is the set-up of the course. I know Mike Davis of the USGA wants to see the women hitting the same clubs to the greens as the men. And the greens will be watered more for the women than the men. We just don’t spin the ball as much, so that is warranted.
What could be bad is if the men don’t finish or have a full day washed out. But a play-off on the Monday won’t be too much of a factor. According to Mike, the plan is to allow the women’s caddies to walk the course before the play-off then allow the women to tee-off after the men. So access should not be a problem.
Why hasn’t Catriona Matthew won more tournaments?
How am I going to say this? She is just too nice to win all the time! It’s that simple. And a huge compliment. But, if you pin me down, she doesn’t seem to hole enough mid-range putts, the ones that make the difference between winning and a high finish. Which is not to say she hits poor putts, but too many of them don’t go in.
Should women’s events be played at all-male clubs?
I would love to see this playing field levelled. I would love there to be an all-female club whose course is so good the men want to play there. Then we can really answer that. It needs to be a question for both sides of the fence.
What should be done to get more young girls playing golf?
This is all about access. Too often, I hear stories about young girls being denied access to the course or clubhouse or whatever. But you also need what we in America call a “buddy system”, where a parent is dropping off a group of kids at the club. So the kids all feel comfortable and push each other to get better.
I was lucky. I grew up at a club where, as soon as I showed promise, they relaxed the rule that would have stopped me getting on the course before noon on the weekends. So I got to play when I wanted and with the better players. And that access accelerated my progress.
It has to be that way everywhere, but, unfortunately, isn’t. The motto at all clubs should be: “If you’re good enough, go play.”