It hardly seems possible, but the corners of Dottie Pepper's mouth have begun a slow, northerly ascent. It is less than two hours since the merciful end of Pepper's six-bogey, one-double final round at the JAL Big Apple Classic, yet as she slumps in the back of a limo speeding toward Manhattan, a smile is threatening to bloom. Yes, this is the Dottie Pepper, known on both sides of the Atlantic for a disposition every bit as spicy as her name. This is a woman whose competitive kettle burns so hot she has suffered ulcers, colitis and a hiatal hernia; who grinds so hard at everything she does, particularly golf, that she has to wear a bite plate at night so as not to wear down her teeth. This is the same Dottie Pepper who is so consumed by the game that she skipped her senior prom in high school to play in her first LPGA event.
But here she is, less than 120 minutes removed from a god-awful 76 that cost her a shot at victory, and a smile has spread across her face. It is a big, beautiful, contented smile, full of sunshine, and why not? Sitting across from Pepper, and beaming right back, is Ralph Scarinzi, her significant other as she calls him, a dapper gentleman who happens to be her caddie of three years. They have bolted from New Rochelle, N.Y., site of the Classic, for a big night on the town celebrating the one-year anniversary of what Scarinzi calls "more than just a caddie-player relationship."
They have other things to celebrate as well. Physically Pepper is sound, after nine seasons of maladies great and small. Then there is her golf game, which is better than it has ever been, even after 14 career wins, nearly $3.7 million in earnings, a major championship (the 1992 Dinah Shore) and a player of the year award (also '92). For as disappointing as that 76 was, Pepper's three-round score of 218 tied for fifth (seven shots back of winner Caroline Pierce) in the cold and blustery conditions at Wykagyl Country Club. It was her seventh top-five finish in her last 10 tournaments, a torrid stretch that has included four wins and established her as the hottest player in the game, male or female.
"I'm working at being healthy and very happy," Pepper says, the wattage of her grin matched only by the bright lights of Manhattan whizzing by. "I feel settled right now, and I think it shows in my golf."
Pepper's hot streak began in June, after a missed cut at the U.S. Women's Open that came at the end of a trying 13 months. In May '95 Pepper was divorced from Doug Mochrie, whom she had known since she was 13, and married while an undergrad at Furman. The Mochries were so determined to keep the divorce proceedings private that Dottie didn't tell her parents until two weeks before the papers were signed. (To the delight of headline writers, Pepper reclaimed her maiden name this season.) With typical resolve she soldiered on after the divorce, even shooting a 66 on the day a terse press statement about it was released.
But Pepper lost more than a spouse. Mochrie had been a guiding force in her career as her swing coach and for many years as her caddie. A new instructor attempted to shorten and flatten her mighty, freewheeling swing, supposedly to encourage consistency. Paralysis by analysis ensued, with Pepper playing consistently poorly the latter third of last season and into this year. It didn't help that she was trying to break in a set of clubs at the same time.
The one thing that has separated Pepper from other players, even as an eighth grader on the Saratoga Springs (N.Y.) High boys' team, is an unshakable confidence. However, as her downward spiral worsened through the first half of this year, Pepper no longer felt so bulletproof. Says her father, Don, "It was the first time in her life that Dottie hit a low point and stayed there. She had never had to play her way out of a real slump before."
After the missed cut at the Open, she went back to an old mentor, Ted Yossuf, the owner of Valley Golf Club in Columbiana, Ohio, with whom she and Mochrie had lived for a while early in their marriage. "All I did was apply a little polish to a Rolls-Royce," says Yossuf. He had Pepper go back to her old swing and told her to scrap the new sticks for what Pepper calls "my dinosaurs," a battle-tested set of forged Titleist irons. It felt like slipping on a favorite pair of blue jeans. Three weeks of beating balls brought back her old form, and her old confidence. Says Yossuf, "She had blisters the size of quarters on both hands, and I would say, 'Dottie, don't those hurt?' She would just fix me with that glare of hers and say, 'Not as much as missing cuts does.' "
Pepper won her first event after returning to the tour, the Rochester International on June 23, and won the ShopRite LPGA Classic in Somers Point, N.J., the next week. She hasn't looked back since. "It's the most dominating stretch of my career," she says. Pepper, who was 22nd on the money list before Rochester, is up to fourth ($570,307) and is third in player of the year points.
Through it all Scarinzi has been at her side. A dead ringer for Indy-car driver Bobby Rahal, only taller, Scarinzi has been steering LPGA players around the course for 13 years, including long runs with Chris Johnson, Amy Benz and Juli Inkster. He and Pepper became romantically involved at last year's Big Apple Classic. "It just sort of... happened," says Pepper, her cheeks suddenly the color of the vodka and cranberry juice she has nursed for the duration of the limo ride. And how did it just sort of happen?