Golf star, TV standout and Old Tom Morris Award winner Dottie Pepper — and with her dog, Rupert — enjoy a fall day in her hometown of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Photo by Melissa Seabury
Dottie Pepper took full advantage of the chip-and-putt course and driving range that her father built on their Saratoga Springs, N.Y., farm. Superintendents might find it interesting to know it wasn’t all that she accomplished there.
“It had well-manicured greens. I was never allowed to mow the greens, but I certainly mowed the fairways on the tractor in my youth,” Pepper says. “I knew when it was time to aerate and put things to bed properly for the winter.”
Eventually, Pepper started mowing down opponents on greens throughout the country and went on to become a two-time major champion.
She wasn’t done after retiring from playing nearly 20 years ago. Pepper made history by becoming the first walking reporter on the grounds for CBS’ televised coverage at the Masters.
Her calling in life encompasses so much more than what happens inside the ropes. For example, she paid off school lunch debts for over four dozen elementary school children. Known as the ultimate competitor, Pepper has been all-in when it comes to other
facets of her life. She’s an author and mentor. Now, she is this: recipient of the GCSAA Old Tom Morris Award for 2024.
Pepper was taken aback upon being told. In 2021, her CBS colleague Jim Nantz was presented with the award. Reached this fall by GCSAA, Pepper assumed it was to offer her sentiments on the latest honoree. “I thought they were calling me to congratulate
someone else, like I did for Jim (during an on-air interlude at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am). But for it to be for me … I’m still shocked,” says Pepper, who is the seventh woman to be honored for the award, joining Patty Berg,
Dinah Shore, Nancy Lopez, Judy Rankin, Annika Sorenstam and Renee Powell of the Powell family. “When you put me in a group with Judy and Dinah and those others in the same sentence, it’s significant. This is the pinnacle, you know, like
Mount Everest, for a garden geek and dirt nerd like me.”
GCSAA CEO Rhett Evans says, “Dottie Pepper has had a standout career as both a major champion and a golf reporter. But she also has a deep appreciation for what all goes into making the game happen and the work that superintendents do, which is
why Dottie Pepper is an ideal recipient of the Old Tom Morris Award.”
Golf great Arnold Palmer was the inaugural award winner in 1983. It is presented to individuals “who, through a continuing lifetime commitment to the game of golf, has helped to mold the welfare of the game in a manner and style exemplified by Old
Tom Morris.” The GCSAA Board of Directors determines the recipient. The award will be presented Jan. 31 at the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show, which in 2024 will be held Jan. 29-Feb. 1 in Phoenix.
Pepper at one of her various workplaces as walking reporter for CBS. She has been with the network since 2015. Photo courtesy of CBS
The makings of a star
A Chi Chi Rodriguez junior club set her grandmother bought launched Pepper’s ascent.
Her father, Don Pepper, took it from there when she was 7. He was a gifted athlete, starring as a young first baseman who adorned the March 11, 1968, cover of Sports Illustrated titled “The Best Rookies of 1968.” One of the other four prospects
on the cover — catcher Johnny Bench — went on to be a Hall of Famer. Don Pepper played briefly in the major leagues for the Detroit Tigers before returning to New York to run the family’s turkey farm after his father died.
His daughter is convinced she benefited from his athletic genes. “I think it’s where my competitive realities came from,” she says. “One of the things he often said is that none of your competitors are pulling for you. It’s
just you and the field. That’s it. So, what you bring to it is what you’re going to get out of it. It’s not going to be anybody else.”
Her drive isn’t limited to golf.
“She was in a grade school production and played the whole score from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ on the piano,” says her mother, Lynn Pepper. “We sat on the side and watched her. She mouthed every single person’s part. I thought
that was amazing. She expected her peers to be just as dedicated as her.”
Don Pepper added, “She was always trying to rise above. She wanted to be the best.”
He guided her golf path until Pepper became a teen and turned her over to someone else. That ensuing relationship was so prominent in Pepper’s life that one day it became book-worthy. George Pulver was a World War I veteran and later a PGA Professional
who took Pepper under his wing when she was 14.
It was the beginning of a mentorship and friendship.
Pepper came into his life shortly after Pulver’s wife — Martha Pulver, who was a terrific golfer — died.
Pepper (third from the right in a gray jacket and blue cap) is a landscape volunteer at the 9/11 memorial in her hometown of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Photo courtesy of Rod Sutton
Pepper witnessed his thirst for agronomics.
She noticed while watching Pulver play golf how he scooped up soil samples. Into his twilight years, Pulver continued to take classes at Cornell University to stay current on agronomy practices. “He always underestimated his knowledge and his gifts.
He was a little too humble about what he had to offer,” Pepper says.
Madelyn Pulver Jennings, George’s daughter, recalls how Pepper entered the picture at a difficult time in his life. “When mom died, dad was in deep mourning. He was still in mourning when Dottie asked him to give her lessons. It was a surprise
to him, but he said yes,” Jennings says. “After each lesson, he typed a letter about her previous day’s lesson and sent it to her.”
She religiously wrote to him, too, and those letters are essential to her book.
“I think him working with her added years to his life,” Jennings says. “I think he thought she was going to have a good life ahead of her in golf.”
The proof surfaced soon enough.
Pepper’s high school petitioned the New York State Board of Education to ask for her to become eligible to play on the boys team; there was no girls golf team at the time. The Board approved.
By her sophomore year, Pepper was the squad’s No. 1 player.
Pulver died in 1986, 35 years before Pepper self-published her book “Letters to a Future Champion: My Time with Mr. Pulver,” which she authored as a tribute to him during the COVID-19 pandemic (she has also co-authored three children’s
books). What he means to her still resonates. “I knew his time was valuable. And I was on the great end of that,” Pepper says.
Pepper with her mentor and the subject of her book, George Pulver. Photos courtesy of Dottie Pepper
Playing for keeps
Ted Ossoff stood behind the 18th green. It was a close-up of history in the making.
His pupil, though, was not impressed. On her way to a major championship record, Pepper wasn’t satisfied with the birdie she recorded to end the third round. That moment was an insight into a mindset that Ossoff, and so many others, knew existed.
“She had fire in her eyes. She said, ‘Come on, let’s go. If I’m playing like that, I’m not going to win the tournament.’ We went to the range for 1½ hours,” says Ossoff, a PGA Professional who served
as Pepper’s swing coach at the time.
On March 28, 1999, time was up for those chasing Pepper in the Nabisco Dinah Shore at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Her final-round 6-under-par 66 and overall 19 under was six strokes better than runner-up Meg Mallon and at the time
set the mark for most strokes under par in a major. It was her second major title, both having happened in the Nabisco Dinah Shore. Ossoff recalls some of Pepper’s opponents waving the white (towel) flag. “I pushed her. Pushed her hard.
She had talent she didn’t know she had,” Ossoff said. “She was intense and would dissect a golf course better than anybody.”
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Pepper sent signals early that she would be a force. At 15, she won the New York State Amateur in 1981. She finished as the low amateur in the U.S. Women’s Open in 1984. At Furman University, Pepper was a
three-time All-American and while there took her father’s advice to earn a degree, which resulted in graduating with a bachelor’s in health sciences in 1987.
Pepper won 17 times on the LPGA Tour. Her career Solheim Cup record for the U.S. team versus the Europeans was a stellar 13-5-2, and she went 3-0-0 in 1994 and 4-0-0 in 1998. She was the type of player who fits these team events. “Feisty and intense.
She was a great player,” says World Golf Hall of Famer Donna Caponi, a four-time major champion. Added six-time major champion and Hall of Famer Pat Bradley, “Even her stride on the fairway was intense, and when we teamed at the Solheim
Cup, it was extremely comforting that she had my back.”
In 1992, Pepper dominated and was chosen as player of the year. She topped the Tour money list and earned the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average at 70.80. Overall, however, Pepper says she didn’t produce enough. Myriad injuries thwarted her
career (including missing all but one tournament in 2002) until she retired in July 2004. “I always thought I’d win a U.S. Open. I threatened a number of times. I left a few out there. I think anybody who’s a Type A personality always
looks back and thinks they could have done better,” she says.
Pepper (center) signs her scorecard at the 1982 PGA Junior Championship.
TV, Tiger and superintendents
You’d have thought Tiger Woods had seen it all at the Masters — a least until he caught a glimpse of Pepper one extraordinarily special day in November 2020. Woods was on the 14th fairway at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. If it
already weren’t unusual playing in the Masters at that time of the year, due to the pandemic, a Pepper sighting took it up a notch for the five-time green jacket winner.
“I was walking up, crossing over the 14th, and waiting for Tiger to pass me, and he stopped dead in his tracks,” she says, “and he turned around and said, ‘Wait, what are you doing here?’ I said, ‘It’s so 2020,
The momentous occasion of her breaking ground as the first TV walking reporter on the playing surface there was significant to Nantz, who was in the TV tower. “When she came to us, she immediately raised our broadcasts to a new level. She executes
to perfection,” says Nantz, who is cheering for Pepper to eventually be picked for induction to the World Golf Hall of Fame. “You need to be succinct and to the point and sound like you’re saying something that’s fresh and
different and phrased in a way no one’s ever heard it before, and she checks all those boxes. To be the player she was, she had amazing tempo and timing. That doesn’t mean because you have tempo and timing with a golf swing you’re
going to have tempo and timing as a broadcaster. But she does. She has the ability to say a lot in a little bit of time.”
Pepper’s TV career includes work at NBC, Golf Channel, ESPN and, since 2015, CBS. Rankin, the 2010 Old Tom Morris Award recipient, thinks Pepper’s TV breakthrough occurred in 1999. Recovering from an injury, Pepper joined Rankin for the telecast
of the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Biltmore Forest Country Club in Asheville, N.C.
Rankin assured her producers that Pepper could handle the assignment. Rankin already knew that Pepper wasn’t shy talking. “I first met her at a U.S. (Women’s) Open. She was this young kid,” Rankin says, “and she talked to
the golf ball as much as anyone I’d ever known.”
Rankin, a 26-time winner on the LPGA Tour and a TV commentator for more than 30 years, said Pepper sparkled. “The gal who won (Dorothy Delasin) was crying, sobbing so hard that she couldn’t talk. Dottie got her to talk. Pulled off the interview.
It showed she had a lot of potential. She got better and better. My claim to fame is I brought Dottie Pepper to television,” Rankin says.
Pepper interviews four-time major champion Rory McIlroy. As a player on the LPGA Tour, Pepper recorded two major titles. Photo courtesy of CBS
Pepper’s preparation for telecasts often relies on superintendents.
“I try to do it (speak with the superintendent) on a regular basis, especially those superintendents who have gone through a restoration or renovation, because they’re the ones who are hands-on the whole time,” she says. “Plus,
it never hurts to get to have a relationship with the superintendent’s dog.”
Chad Mark, GCSAA Class A director of grounds at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, calls Pepper “the consummate professional.” He’s gotten to know her when she’s on the scene for the Memorial Tournament. “She’s
so pleasant and upbeat and a cheerleader for what we do,” says Mark, a 26-year member of GCSAA. “She always has a great attitude and perspective. She’s very in tune to what we do and how it affects the golf tournament.”
Pepper says, “He’s always been really good with us. And I think it’s really important that the GCSAA is woven into our telecasts, the information that comes off the (GCSAA) website every week and how the course is set up. They (superintendents)
all are very happy to share some of their insights.”
Among many of Pepper’s achievements was finishing in the top 10 on the money list in 10 of 11 seasons, from 1991 to 2001.Photos courtesy of the LPGA
Mentoring and championing women
Jimin Kang sometimes wonders where she’d be without Pepper in her life.
Once a runner-up in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, Kang has counted on Pepper as a mentor for more than two decades, just as Pulver mentored Pepper. Mentorship is a pillar of GCSAA’s mission — and Pepper knows the drill. “I
think it just was an expectation that you leave things a little better than you found them,” she says.
When Kang was struggling with her putting, Pepper was there with advice. When Kang was considering a career in healthcare, Pepper weighed in. And when Kang decided to return to golf, Pepper offered support.
“Whenever I have concerns to make a decision, something I’m not sure about, I can count on Dottie. She is reliable,” says Kang, an assistant teaching pro at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. “It’s her core values,
principles, that I have huge respect for. She’s just a great human being. She’s my role model, my super rock star.”
Pepper champions women like Kang in the industry, and she’s aware that women superintendents are making their mark, noting the droves of women superintendents at recent U.S. Women’s Opens. And she was thrilled to hear about GCSAA’s inaugural
Women’s Leadership Academy that was held last month.
“There’s really some remarkable women in this industry,” she says. “When I first got into television on a full-time basis, (producer) Tommy Roy at NBC told me that the microphone doesn’t know whether you’re male or
female, and, for me, I think that grass doesn’t know whether it’s a female or male superintendent. And people are starting to maybe understand a little more that if you’ve paid your dues, if you have the experience, you have a valid
résumé, done your apprenticeship, put in your hours, then there’s no reason a female can’t do the job.”
Pepper hoisting the hardware with tournament namesake Dinah Shore after Pepper notched her first major championship in 1992.
Rupert. David. 9/11. And reaching new heights?
As she chatted on her phone, Pepper’s voice was joined by another familiar sound in her household.
Her beloved Rupert, a miniature German schnauzer, unleashed a string of barks. Meanwhile, her husband, David Normoyle, was preparing to depart on an overseas trip. Normoyle’s company, Normoyle Historical Consulting, works with golf clubs, resorts
and courses worldwide to preserve and promote their unique histories.
Pepper obviously has a history that is ongoing in her hometown of Saratoga Springs, population roughly 28,000 and three hours north of downtown Manhattan, N.Y. She spearheaded landscaping efforts at Saratoga’s 9/11 memorial at High Rock Park, which
features a 25-foot-tall sculpture of twisted pieces of steel from the World Trade Center.
“It (the park area) needed some landscaping. She took it on as a personal project to make sure it’s being memorialized each year. She’s been the catalyst, and she gets her hands dirty like the rest of us,” says Rod Sutton, who
is among those helping to maintain the park. “When she involves herself in anything she does, she jumps in with both feet. She wears red, white and blue on her sleeve. And she still has that intensity.”
Since the golf season slowed for her this fall, Pepper broadened her horizons. Literally. In October, she took her first flying lesson. What might this lead to? “I don’t know. I’m going to keep trying to poke at it and see maybe where
I can take it,” Pepper says.
Brandie Burton, a former rival who became a dear friend, likely won’t be stunned if Pepper pursues this flying thing seriously. After all, that’s the Pepper way. “It’s all or nothing at all. She pours her heart into everything
she does,” says Burton, noting that when she was recovering from an injury, Pepper surprised her by sending flowers. “She’s always made sure things were going to be OK. That’s a great friend to have.”
Photo by John Mummert/USGA
What a bear
In her role as on-course reporter, Dottie Pepper is on the move. One time, however, she decided it was time to really pick up the pace.
Fifteen years ago, during the second round of the 2008 U.S. Senior Open at The Broadmoor’s East Course in Colorado Springs, Colo., a black bear was out and about — and it evolved into an alarming scenario for Pepper. She had been informed
before the championship that bears might be in the vicinity. Before she knew it, Pepper’s buffer zone between herself and a bear was reduced to an arm’s length. She was on the left side of the 13th fairway when, during a commercial and
right before the bear drew closer, Pepper informed the production trailer what was happening. “I think they heard me kind of go, ‘Oh my God, you guys. It’s a bear.’ Kind of a scary moment,” she says.
The bear had a bead on Pepper as it approached.
“I was trying to remember what they told us at the beginning of the week, whether you’re supposed to stand still or run,” Pepper says.
Although she was warned that trying to run might not be a good idea, she did so anyway. Who would blame her? “I froze for a moment. Then I dropped my yardage book and took off,” she says. Fortunately, the bear reversed course away from Pepper
and meandered through the West Course, vanishing without harming patrons.
Pepper — and the bear — made ESPN’s opening on “SportsCenter” that evening. She and golf star Bernhard Langer, who was in the 13th fairway, both have photos of the close encounter in their homes. Pepper was wearing a red
blouse and white pants that day, a wardrobe choice that Pepper’s close friend, TV on-course commentator Roger Maltbie, addressed during a commercial break after the tense scenario ended. “Kid, you picked the wrong day to wear white,”
Howard Richman (email@example.com) is GCM’s associate editor.