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Tuesday, Nov 13, 2018
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Former LPGA star turns Tarpon Woods course into haven for veterans

EAST LAKE — Professional golfer Jan Stephenson is known for her many accomplishments on the course, including 16 LPGA Tour wins and three major championships after her Rookie of the Year debut season in 1974.

Off the course, Stephenson is proving to be as successful, with business and philanthropic ventures that include a line of award-winning wines, course designing and charitable work.

Through Jan Stephenson’s Crossroads Foundation, which benefits Purple Heart, blind and disabled veterans and first responders, the Australian native is embarking on another endeavor — transforming Tarpon Woods Golf Club into a top-notch facility that caters to that group.

"I knew we needed a facility to have a home for them to play," Stephenson said during the recent Tarpon Woods ribbon cutting ceremony. "Before I took over this course I traveled the world, and years ago I got involved with blind and disabled golfers at the Paralympic Games. I was fascinated at how they could play, and Ian Baker Finch and I became ambassadors for the International Blind Golfers Association."

A fellow Aussie who now lives in North Palm Beach, Baker Finch won the 1991 Open Championship, at Royal Birkdale, and is now a TV golf commentator.

Stephenson, who still competes on the LPGA’s Legends Tour, took over Tarpon Woods in April 2017 with her partners, Pasco-based business consultant Michael Vandiver and his wife, Diane. They’ve been working hard ever since to bring the par-72 course bordering Pinellas County’s 8,700-acre Brooker Creek Preserve back to life.

"The course was in bad shape," Stephenson said, noting it had been through several ownership changes since being founded by Ann Fiorentino and her husband in 1971. "The clubhouse was trashed, there hadn’t been any water on the greens in eight years, it was a mess. We had a lot of work to do to get it to where it is now, and we still have a long way to go to get it where it needs to be."

According to Michael Vandiver, Tarpon Woods was in "a pretty sad state."

"It needed a lot of repairs, and over the last year we’ve done close to $400,000 in capital improvements, including a new irrigation system, new grass, clubhouse improvements," he said. "Jan was out there pulling weeds today because she wants this course to be the best that it can be."

Tarpon Woods is now designated a Purple Heart course, one of two in the state and five in the country. Its support staff is comprised entirely of veterans, Stephenson said.

Maintenance man Kevin Ervin said he appreciated the opportunities Stephenson and the other Tarpon Woods owners have provided for him and other veterans.

"I’m a vet and I think what they’re doing for vets is awesome," the Citrus Park resident and Gulf War veteran said. "I’ve been working here for two years and they have a lot of vets helping out, for sure. It’s awesome."

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