Dottie Pepper won two majors, 17 LPGA events and a reputation for being combative. Retired now, for close to a decade, she has grown gracefully into her role with NBC Sports as the most authoritative, insightful and, arguably, the best female golf broadcaster in the business.
Married last May and living in upstate New York with her husband, USGA historian David Normoyle, Pepper says the only thing that would make her happier than she already is right now would be if “my dog was five years younger.”
Global Golf Post editor-in-chief Brian Hewitt recently chatted at length with Pepper. And as usual, she delivered the goods on a wide range of subjects that included, among others, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan and the Founders Cup; Carolyn Bivens’ ill-fated commissionership; Lexi Thompson’s failed petition; Tiger Woods’ compounded PR errors; and what it’s like working with Johnny Miller. Pepper also explained why she doesn’t believe she will ever captain a U.S. Solheim Cup team.
THE POST: Let’s cut right to the topical chase: What do you think of commissioner Michael Whan’s now-controversial Founders Cup concept and the idea that all the money will go to charities and the the players won’t actually receive checks for the $1.3 million purse?
PEPPER: I think there was a bit of a rush to get more rounds under the players’ belts prior to the first major championship and I think there was a little bit of rush to try and do something positive in a PR sense to get the year kicked off positively. Overall, I think it’s a great idea. I don’t think the “I’s” were dotted and the “T’s” were crossed necessarily in the fullest and most thought-out manner.
THE POST: What did you think of the resistance to the idea from Cristie Kerr, Morgan Pressel, Suzann Pettersen and Paula Creamer?
PEPPER: I think the resistance should have been handled internally. There is absolutely nothing wrong with those players saying, “I have a personal conflict that week. It wasn’t on the original schedule. It wasn’t among my plans.” But handle it internally with Mike. He is more than open – whether it’s e-mailing or texting or whatever. He is always available. For them to take it to their own personal releases like Morgan did, I thought was absurd. If they have a problem with not wanting to play, fine. Just don’t play. And if somebody asks and you have a personal conflict or a family conflict, just say I think I have a better way to prepare for the upcoming major (Kraft Nabisco). But don’t go the way they did.
THE POST: Do you think these women got bad advice from their advisers or was this them speaking?
PEPPER: As active as those Twitter accounts are, I think it was pretty much from them. They’re quick to jump on that sort of stuff, which is fine. But I think they created more hard feelings toward themselves by issuing what they did. They could have quietly gone about saying, “I have elected not to play.” Period. Instead of letting it go viral.
THE POST: Speaking of going viral, it seems like a lot of people need editors for their Twitter accounts.
PEPPER: Yes. It’s too easy to hit the send button. I think Twitter is a really valuable tool and it’s wonderful at keeping people connected. But it’s just the same as Facebook is. You’ve got to realize the power of that send button.
THE POST: In a more macro vein, what are Michael Whan’s biggest challenges right now?
PEPPER: I still fervently believe that the LPGA needs a bigger presence domestically. And that, I think, in light of the economy – although it’s starting to show little signs of popping back – is his biggest challenge. And he’s got, somehow, to sell this foreign invasion right here in the United States. And I think part of that, frankly, is television’s duty, with help from the LPGA and its other partners to let people know who these people really are. Okay, so maybe they can’t speak English but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a great story.
THE POST: Who specifically is that responsibility on and how could they be more proactive in telling those stories?
PEPPER: I think they’ve done a really good deal by hiring Sean Pyun (manager of International Development and Member Services). He has managed to bridge a lot of hesitation gaps between the Korean players especially. He’s a very trusted person out there. It’s very difficult when you’re from a perfectionist society and not wanting to make a mistake, to trust someone. Sean has done an amazing job to be that person for the player that’s on the road. And also there’s now a weekly opportunity to learn, polish up or socialize their English. But I also think, too, how many foreign players consider Orlando (Florida) home?
THE POST: A lot.
PEPPER: A lot. Why are the LPGA and Golf Channel seemingly fighting each other? They should be doing bits and pieces on these players all the time. They should be flying into Golf Central as the LPGA season starts and get to know these players.
THE POST: Who is the best player on the LPGA right now and which player has the most talent?
PEPPER: Ooh, that’s a tough one. I think, talent-wise, Yani Tseng and Suzann Pettersen run very close as far as athletic talent and ball-striking talent, just overall giftedness, I guess you would call it. Best player out there right now is probably Yani.
THE POST: What LPGA player has the best head?
PEPPER: That’s a really good question. Whoever could be apart from their Twitter account long enough to play a good round of golf (laughs) without feeling compelled to get on there. I guess that would probably be the answer. I think Pettersen, if she would quit tinkering, because she can get mean but control it.
THE POST: Is the fact that No. 1 in the rankings is up for grabs almost every week a good thing?
PEPPER: I thought it had a lot of good stories last year and it was around the majors when things really started to change. But if you don’t have consistent coverage, who’s going to pay attention? I think there’s still an alienation in the media that we created around Carolyn (former LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens) that Mike is slowly repairing and repairing really well. But there was so much collateral damage that I think a part of it was, “Who cares?”
THE POST: Got to follow up on that. How many years did the Bivens regime set the LPGA back?
PEPPER: I’ve heard some people say maybe a decade.
THE POST: Care to elaborate?
PEPPER: Well, it was in collaboration with the recession. We’ve had some commissioners that weren’t fabulous but there was a good economy and on a straightforward turnaround things happen more quickly. I think the worldwide economy makes it more difficult for people to justify spending an increased amount of money on any product, really. And we’re really just now starting to see that come back with Cadillac and KIA.
THE POST: So is it fair and/or accurate to say Carolyn Bivens was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time?
THE POST: As you have watched the Lexi Thompson situation unfold, what are your thoughts? She just turned 16 and, at 15, petitioned for LPGA eligibility. Whan (conditionally) turned down the petition.
PEPPER: From the standpoint of what Mike Whan did, I think he was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. He supported membership. He made a good “dad” decision. And he looked out, long term, for someone who may be coming on her heels that may be just as good if not better. And I think we’ve learned by watching, you know, Lindsay Lohan that too much too early is not great. The LPGA is better off with a Lexi Thompson who can’t wait to play; who can’t wait to compete; who can’t wait to play for the United States on a Solheim Cup team in six years, then they are to have a burned-out kid who doesn’t want to have anything to do with golf.
THE POST: This leads us right into Michelle Wie, who had decisions made for her at a similarly early age. Where do you see her at age 30?
PEPPER: I hope Michelle will be at age 30 wherever Michelle wants Michelle to be. And not have decisions made for her again. I do think there’s a level of underachievement there for her pure talent. It’s crazy. But I also think there were a whole series of things surrounding her that made allowing that talent to happen almost impossible. And she still wants to be an outstanding college graduate, which I think is fantastic. But there’s been so much piled on her and so many expectations that even if she was terrific, people will say she should have been setting world records.
THE POST: How much has it hurt the LPGA to have lost, in relatively quick succession, Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa to retirement.
PEPPER: Frankly, I thought it would have damaged the LPGA more had they been American. That would have really been a big hit. It was bad enough as it was because the storyline was there every week and they almost always delivered. And they also played a lot, which was really big.
THE POST: Let’s talk Tiger Woods. It seems like a lot of people still root for his golf but are exasperated by what they perceive to be inadequate efforts on his part to repair the off-the-course damage. Right or wrong? Fair or unfair?
PEPPER: I think if you did a gallery poll, that’s exactly what you would come up with. They’re still awed by his absolute dominating performances – and it seems like he could turn the switch on at any point again, honestly. Watching at his event (last December), he’s a really amazing golfer. He just didn’t get it done down the stretch there but I think that’s part of coming back from what he has dealt himself. But I think you have a pretty accurate pulse. People are still in awe of his golf shots and in awe of everything that came to be.
THE POST: In awe, in the sense of watching a train wreck happen in front of your eyes?
PEPPER: Yes. Exactly. People still … you hear the murmurs in the crowd: “That couldn’t have been. That couldn’t have been.” And … it was.
THE POST: If you were one of Tiger’s advisers, what would you have had him do differently in the aftermath of the revelations?
PEPPER: I’d have been up front as fast as possible because Americans and people worldwide, with honesty, they tend to be very forgiving. And maybe he didn’t feel like he owed it to people. But you’re in a different spotlight in that situation. You’re the world’s most recognizable athlete and, arguably for some people, the most recognizable person, period. I think it requires a different level of comeuppance when you’re just human.
THE POST: Does he have that ability to deliver that different level of atonement? Or is it a kind of Achilles’ heel or tragic flaw in his makeup?
PEPPER: I don’t know. But I do know in the couple of weeks afterward there was no comment whatsoever; he totally disappeared and the rumors went rampant. While you may have not been able to stop them, you could have stemmed them with fact.
THE POST: They say in the airline industry, to use a weather metaphor, when O’Hare Airport in Chicago sneezes, the rest of the country catches cold. Do you think Tiger’s troubles and the negative publicity that surrounded them hurt the game of golf?
PEPPER: To use your metaphor, if Chicago sneezes and Atlanta does the same, it’s pneumonia. And I think that’s what happened. It went everywhere. He’s so global. He has played everywhere, totally recognizable.
THE POST: Back on golf, as a player who has been at the highest level in your own arena, when you see him do things that normal golfers can’t even comprehend, what’s your reaction.
PEPPER: I’m giving you Roger Maltbie as the example of that. Roger for so long has been the lead walker for NBC and is with Tiger all the time it seems like. He has said, “That guy (Woods) is gonna get me fired some day because I’m gonna say something on the air when he hits one of those shots that I shouldn’t be saying.” So, there you go.
THE POST: Like, “Holy s—“?
PEPPER: Yes. When Tiger’s firing on all cylinders, he sees shots that other players wouldn’t even dream of looking for. It’s one of those things where you just go, “Oh, my God.”
THE POST: Speaking of NBC, what’s the best part of working with Johnny Miller and the rest of the guys on their golf broadcast team?
PEPPER: We’re a very dysfunctional family, and I think everybody would tell you that. But for the most part we actually like hanging out together. It’s a bit of a sorority-fraternity type thing with the philosophy of work hard, play hard. And we have a really good time with what we do.
THE POST: Was it difficult getting accepted into the sorority-fraternity as the the only woman on that team?
PEPPER: I think if I had been high maintenance, it might have been because everybody really fends for themselves while looking out for everybody else, too. They’ve been like a band of big brothers, honestly. I never had an older brother or a younger brother so in many ways it has been a completion of my family experience.
THE POST: What about working with Johnny?
PEPPER: He makes you better because he will acknowledge when you come up with something that he didn’t think about or you just got a factoid that he didn’t have or hadn’t come up with yet. So if you can say something that you know you’re correct on, he will acknowledge it. But he’s the one that has the microphone open throughout the entire show. His microphone is never shut down. So if you’re gonna say it, you better be right because he can always come back with the opposite. He does keep everybody on their toes.
THE POST: If you were the boss of all things golf and you could change any one thing, what would it be?
PEPPER: In light of what happened in the last year with all of these rules things, I would mandate that my players go to rules schools – especially in the years that the R&A and USGA make changes with the rulebook – and they attend a one-day session and maybe a television-driven rules seminar. It would put a lot of the garbage to rest and I think it would free up the players. I think it would speed up pace of play because the common-sense, everyday rulings wouldn’t involve bringing a rules official in. And it would make my players more self-reliant. And I think one day would really help that.
THE POST: Would you make them take and pass a test?
PEPPER: Maybe an open book test, which would make them familiar with where to find things.
THE POST: What’s your favorite memory as a player?
PEPPER: The first Kraft I think was fabulous because I didn’t have to take the dive. I won a playoff.
THE POST: I was at the second Kraft (victory) and I remember because you did take the dive into the pond and were wearing a white terry cloth robe in the media room.
PEPPER: Yes, (laughs) that was all because Donna Andrews had worn worn a white shirt and (soaking wet after the dive) that wasn’t too cool (more laughs). But anyway, my favorite moment was winning at Stratton Mountain in ’95. It was the one and only time my family saw me win a golf tournament professionally. I’m the kid of very young parents and they were always working. But this was only an hour and a half from home and we had tons of family and friends that were there and it was battle between (Pat) Bradley and her Boston gang and my gang, who was just a little bit closer, and it was blast to be involved in it. But to come out on top when everybody was there, for the only time, that was pretty cool.
THE POST: Do you think you will ever be a Solheim Cup captain?
PEPPER: I don’t think it matters if I’d want to do it or not. I don’t think it will ever happen. I firmly believe it will never happen and I’ve made peace and come to terms with that.
THE POST: Because …
PEPPER: The microphone being left open at the Solheim Cup in Sweden in 2008 (Editor’s note: Pepper made graphically unflattering remarks about the American team, which was playing poorly. She thought her TV microphone was off.)
THE POST: A lot of people believe you as captain would be to a U.S. Solheim Cup team what Paul Azinger was as captain to the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team. You say you’ve come to terms with it. Was that tough to deal with?
PEPPER: I don’t know if it was tough to deal with. What happened, happened. We’re living in a very politically correct culture. There are players that still won’t speak to me. So if that’s not gonna happen, I don’t see myself being a very good captain or a very effective captain. And that matters more. If you’re going to be a captain, you better be a darn good one because it’s an important job. But I honestly believe that will never happen. And I’m fine with it. It doesn’t change the great years I had on Tour and it certainly doesn’t change the great thing I’ve got going right now doing Plan B. I couldn’t ask for a life to be much better. I really couldn’t … other than maybe if my dog was about five years younger, I would be very happy.