Down the Fairway: Pepper recalls her mentor in new book

Dottie Pepper (CBS Sports photo)

Dottie Pepper (CBS Sports photo)

Determined, dedicated and detail-oriented, Dottie Pepper is one of the greatest athletes — male or female — in Capital Region history. After a brilliant amateur career, her 17-year run on the LPGA Tour included 17 victories and two majors. She’s gone on to become a highly regarded television analyst and sideline reporter, as well as a talented author.

An admitted Type-A personality and perfectionist, Pepper’s rise to stardom can be traced from lessons she received as a youngster from the late local club pro George Pulver Sr. Their correspondences confirm much of what so many followers know about the feisty Pepper, but they also open a window to so much more, including a few surprises. If you really want to know why Dottie is the way she is — and how she became a no-excuses star golfer comfortable on the national stage, check out her new book “Letters to A Future Champion, My Time with Mr. Pulver.”

It’s a great read for all golf fans, especially those from the Capital Region. Pepper’s letters to and from Mr. Pulver recount an amateur career that included many local titles, like a pair of Gazette Women’s Amateur crowns, the 1981 NYS Women’s Amateur and the 1983 NYS Women’s Amateur and Junior Amateur crowns — the first time anyone won both in the same year.

Pepper, a member of the New York State Golf Association Hall of Fame, was a member of the 1981 Junior World Cup Team and was low amateur at the 1984 U.S. Women’s Open. She also won a Futures Tour tournament — now the Symetra Tour — as an amateur before heading to Furman University, where she earned five collegiate titles and was an All-American three times.

As a professional, Pepper’s outstanding career was highlighted by her two major wins — the 1992 and 1999 Nabisco Dinah Shore Championships. Her 19-under-par finish in the 1999 Dinah Shore still stands as the lowest score in relation to par in a major championship. Pepper was the Rolex Player of the Year in 1992, when she also topped the money list. Between 1991 and 2001, she finished in the top 10 on the money list 10 times.

Pepper was known for her fiery personality. She was especially dominating in Solheim Cup competition against the best players from the European Tour. She made the U.S. team for the Solheim Cup six times, compiling an outstanding 13-5-2 record with 14 points. She also was named assistant captain for the 2013 U.S. team.

Pepper retired in 2005 due to injuries and began a career as a golf commentator for NBC and The Golf Channel. She later retired from commentating, in part because of the travel grind, and she devoted much of her time to promoting junior golf and to becoming a PGA of America board member. She later returned to commentating on a limited basis for ESPN, and in 2015 signed a contract with CBS as an on-course reporter. A few years ago, she also wrote a series of children’s books.

Pepper, 55, was born in Saratoga Springs. Her father, Don, was a major league baseball player who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s “rookies to watch” list along with Hall of Famer Johnny Bench.

Picking up her athletic ability from her dad, Pepper quickly became interested in both golf and skiing. Her family didn’t have much money, and she had to pick and choose which tournaments to enter, depending on how close to home they were. She adopted a mantra of always being the underdog, and she used it to her advantage.

Pulver, also a Saratoga Springs High School grad like Pepper, took an interest in the young up-and-coming star. His letters — mostly compiled on a typewriter — were always thoughtful, educational and encouraging. He was always impressed with Pepper’s swing, but coached her in many other aspects of golf, including the short game and the mental game.

At one point in their relationship, Pulver’s wife, Martha, passed away, and Pulver was able to deal with the enormous loss a little better because he was able to help mold Pepper’s career. He died at age 87 in 1986. He was still coaching Pepper at the time. Pulver, a longtime head pro and course superintendent at McGregor Links CC, Saratoga Golf & Polo Club and Brookhaven, is a member of the Northeastern New York PGA, where he won many weekly events and was inducted into its Hall of Fame. Something I found extremely interesting is that Pulver, an Albany Business College grad, began as a cub reporter for The Saratogian.

I asked Pepper, whom I’ve known since 1988 when I initially took over the golf beat at The Daily Gazette, why write this book, which has already sold out its first sales order and won’t be reshipping more orders until July.

“Mostly, I guess, it was the timing,” Pepper said as she was preparing for the PGA Championship this week. “I had some time to kill because of the COVID shutdown. The time element is so crucial. My husband told me I had a really good core for a book. I thought I knew what I had, but as I went through some of the letters that George Jr. [Pulver’s son] left me before his passing, I found some forbidden letters that Mr. Pulver never allowed me to see. I had no idea that he kept all the letters I wrote to him, just as I had kept all of the ones I wrote to him. It became apparent that our relationship was much deeper.”

Pepper received instruction from several different experts along the way, but she always kept Pulver’s guidance in the forefront.

“The most important thing is that he always believed in me,” she said. “He was never shy about how difficult it was going to be in order to make it to the top. He was very realistic about that. But he was also very encouraging. He never sugar-coated anything, but he was very understated. He knew what it was going to take for me to get to the LPGA Tour.”

The book includes so many hand-written letters from Pepper and type-written letters from Pulver, as well as many extraordinary pictures and information graphics on Pepper’s career, and on many others who influenced her along the way, including LPGA star/commentator Judy Rankin.

I asked Pepper what writing the book did for her own self-awareness.

“I guess writing it helped me manage my own perfectionism,” she said. “That’s probably the biggest thing that has come out of it. It reminds me that even though I’m part of a large team at CBS Sports, ultimately to make a team great you have to excel at the individual parts and bring everyone along with you on the journey. We have a great cast of characters at CBS, and we are marching in unison.”

Pepper said she’s noticed many changes in the men’s and women’s golf games since she played.

“In the women’s game, there is so much more international travel because of the popularity of golf world-wide, especially in the Far East,” she said. “It’s international in scope.

“For the men, technology and training have turned the game into a power game. The guys have fine-tuned their equipment and their bodies. I think it has led to the tour changing the way they set up the course. It’s all power now. I’m wondering long-term what are the impacts on the players’ bodies down the road. I’m also wondering if all this clubhead speed is going to shorten their careers.”

I asked Pepper about her place in Capital Region sports history, and if she feels differently about it after the book.

“I guess, personally, I could have put myself in better situations professionally to excel, but that’s all,” she said. “I gave it everything I had when I went out on the field. I think I’m finding my stride as a broadcaster now. I’ve been on this side of the microphone longer than I played on tour. I’m in my 18th year now of broadcasting after playing for 17 years. I’m still trying to get better every day. I never want to be content with where I am.”

CHALLENGE CUP

The 2021 Challenge Cup, between the amateurs from the Capital Region Amateur Golf Association and the club pros from the Northeastern New York PGA, will be held Thursday at Schuyler Meadows Club. An individual and team match-play format will be used. There are 12 players on each team, based on each organization’s player of the year point lists.

The amateurs have won the last four Challenge Cups and lead the series 12-10-2. The Ryder Cup-like competition was originally known as the Yamaha Cup and then the Smith Cup, named after longtime Wolferts Roost CC head pro Bob Smith from 1976 through 1979 and then again from 1984 until 1989. The Daily Gazette helped resurrect the series in 2005. Scheduling conflicts canceled the 2018 event, and it was also canceled last year because of the pandemic.

The CRAGA team consists of David Hayes (Schuyler Meadows) with Jim Mueller (Orchard Creek), Dan Russo (Schuyler Meadows) with Alex Bringsjord (CC of Troy), Ryan Davis (Albany CC) with Travis Koch (Saratoga National), Lance Hope (Schenectady Municipal) with Griff Hunter (eclub-Capital District), Dave Mooradian (CC of Troy) with Chad Stoffer (Town of Colonie) and Ben Bates (Schenectady Municipal) with Joe Fitzsimmons (Shaker Ridge CC).

The NENY PGA team, captained by Town of Colonie director of golf Noel Gebauer, includes Tom Oppedisano (Skidmore College), with Jeremy Kerr (Mohawk Golf Club), Dal Daily (Battenkill CC) with Glenn Davis (Albany CC), Brad Gardner (The Edison Club) with Chris Sanger (Woodstock GC), Justin Hearley (Normanside CC) with Ian Breen (Whiteface Resort & GC), Marc Levesque (Wyantenuck CC) with Josh Hillman (Taconic GC) and Scott Battiste (Eagle Crest GC) with Dan Kinn (Acushnet).

By the way, Daily, a four-time NENY PGA Stroke Play champion, was extremely influential in helping us resurrect the Challenge Cup.
The matches begin at 8:30 a.m.

FANTASTIC STREAK BROKEN

Country Club of Pittsfield head pro Eric Mabee, 37, recorded a pair of eagles en route to an even-par 142 two-day total to win the NENY PGA Stroke Play Championship Wednesday at the Country Club of Troy. He snapped Saratoga Spa Golf Course assistant pro Scott Berliner’s amazing 10-year streak in the section’s premier event and earned $2,000.

Berliner (148) finished fifth, behind Mabee, Normanside CC assistant pro Justin Hearley (144), Mohawk Golf Club head pro Jeremy Kerr (145) and Battenkill CC head pro Dal Daily (146). The 10-time Player of the Year had the longest consecutive win streak of anyone in the PGA of America’s 41 sections.

The dominant Berliner, 46, has won 27 major championships and 53 tournaments overall in the section.

“I’m grateful he didn’t have his A-game, because he’s a stud,” said Mabee about Berliner, who recorded an event-high nine birdies over the two days, but struggled on the greens Wednesday with a 5-putt on the par-3 second hole.

Mabee, who made the cut at this year’s National Professional Championship and also earned an alternate’s berth at the U.S. Open local qualifier at Mohawk Golf Club, had been the runner-up in this event three times.

CHIP SHOTS

The 10th annual NYS Men’s Amateur and the ninth annual Men’s Senior Amateur Four-Ball Championship will be contested Sunday and Monday at Leatherstocking Golf Club. Former state champs in the field include Russo, Jim Welch of Winding Brook CC and Matt Clarke, formerly of the CC of Troy.
Schenectady Municipal Golf Course will offer junior golf camps June 28-July 2 and July 5-9 at a cost of $100 per student. Students will learn the full swing, short game, rules of the game, course etiquette, etc. Lunch will be served every day. The camp runs from 9 a.m. until noon each day. Sign up at the pro shop or call 518-382-3155 for more information.

Registration for the eighth annual NYS Amateur Mixed Team Championship at Brook-Lea CC in Rochester on June 14 closes June 1 at 5 p.m. Entry fee is $225.

Jim Mueller teamed up with Craig Hayner to win the Eagle Crest Spring Scramble with an 11-under-par 61 last Sunday.

HOLES-IN-ONE

At Briar Creek Golf Course, Dale Wotherspoon aced the 110-yard seventh hole with a 54 degree wedge.

John Hoffman hit a 7-wood on the 172-yard seventh hole at The Edison Club for his fifth career ace.

EAGLES

Former Schenectady judge Bruce Martin, now in his 80s, eagled the ninth hole at Schenectady Municipal Golf Course.

Bob Sherlock posted an eagle-2 on the par-4 second hole, and Joe DeMars also had an eagle-2 on the par-4 17th hole at Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course.

Reach Bob Weiner at [email protected].

Categories: Sports

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