Pepper Remembers Record-Setting ANA Inspiration Win 20 Years Later
Given the dominance – her margin of victory over an extraordinary field and the scoring record that still stands 20 years later – it is surprising to hear Dottie Pepper describe her most lasting memories from the 1999 ANA Inspiration.
“I remember I didn’t drive the ball particularly well that week,” Pepper said from her home in a chilly Saratoga Springs, New York.
Really? An event she won by six shots over Meg Mallon; a championship where she was under par every day and shot 66-67-66 the final three rounds to reach 19-under, a number that hasn’t been touched at the Tournament Course at Mission Hills since, and the first thing she remembers is skinking a few drivers?
“Yeah, I didn’t drive it well but I wedged the heck out of it and my short game was untouchable,” Pepper said. “There was pressure on my short game but it never let me down. And I felt comfortable enough with my short game that even when I missed a fairway I didn’t aim away from flags very often.”
That one statement sums up more than Pepper’s record-setting week in 1999, a week that is still brought up anytime a player creeps near the 19-under mark in golf’s first major. It is a statement about who Dottie is and the competitor she has always been.
A 17-time LPGA Tour winner, Dottie always had a stare that would cut steel, an intensity in her life and career that made her work harder, dig deeper and constantly strive for perfection.
It pushed her to hit the gym in a big way in 1998 after going two full seasons without a victory. Her first ANA Inspiration win came in 1992 and was the catalyst for her winning the Vare Trophy and becoming Player of the Year that season. But that ANA win had come in an intense playoff over Juli Inkster, one that ended on the 10th green. So there was no 18th green celebration, no dive into Poppy’s Pond. It wasn’t anticlimactic – winning your first major never is – but there wasn’t the amphitheater or the 18th green drama that has become so symbolic.
The 1999 ANA Inspiration was different. “There wasn’t much difference back then between (the ANA Inspiration) and the U.S. Women’s Open,” Pepper said. “It was sort of like what the Masters is now. It was the first major and your target going into the off season and setting your schedule (early in the year) was this tournament. That was the focus. You were trying to be prepared for that one.
Pepper had a good winter leading into the 1999 event. She felt great and had posted some good finishes. But no one can measure grit. Even 20 years later, you can feel the intensity of that moment when Pepper recalls her mindset.
“I was certainly prepared when I got there,” she said. “I don’t want to say there was an expectation but I would have been disappointed knowing how well I was playing going into that year if I had not played well at Mission Hills.
“I think winning the second (major) – and I think most major champions would say this – it validated the first. I would have been disappointed if there had only been one major. Heck, I am disappointed that I didn’t win more golf tournaments. I think I could have managed myself physically a little better. I left some out there.”
Those who know Dottie best expect nothing less. Even with her playing days behind her; even with two major championships to her credit; even looking back on a career where she is the 32nd winningest player in LPGA history, she still believes she should have done more.
The ANA will always hold a special place in her heart though. And not just because of its major championship status.
“Those victories were incredibly important to me because, in 1984 I had finished low amateur in the U.S. Women’s Open and won a Futures Tour event. So in 1985, as a college sophomore, I had an exemption as an amateur into the (ANA Inspiration). And I didn’t have enough money to go. So, when I got a chance to be a champion in 1992 it meant a lot. And when I won it a second time in 1999 it meant even more because I had to say no to that event as an amateur.
Then she paused, a soft pall falling over her as her voice filling with a faint quiver. “I didn’t have enough money to go play,” she said.
The motives of a champion are not always known. But they are always there. Forever.