A Sense Of Place
Why would Dottie Pepper walk away from a big job covering televised golf? It has to do with the small town where she grew up -- and her desire to give back to the game
Saratoga Springs whispers of a simpler time when trains brought New York City's elite up the Hudson River to the Adirondack Mountains region, away from the summer heat, to enjoy the racetrack and mineral springs. While fewer millionaires now visit Saratoga, the Spa, as it is known, is a year-round vacation spot for the masses with summer giving way to fall foliage season, which yields to a bustling ski business. And enough ornate mansions survive to give the town a homey, out-of-time feel -- a sense of the way America was.
This is where Dottie Pepper grew up. And it is where she has returned to call home again after walking away from a six-figure television job to become a volunteer board member for the PGA of America primarily charged with the task of growing the game, the central issue facing golf. This is not the first time Pepper, 47, has reinvented herself. She won 17 times on the LPGA, including two major championships, before injuries cut short her career and drove her to TV.
Pepper ended up back in the Adirondacks, far from the warm weather and planned communities of Florida where she lived for a long time, nearly five years ago to replant her roots because it just felt like the right place to be.
"This all sort of spiraled out of wanting to be back in a really vibrant community -- out of the gated community," Pepper says just a bike ride from where she grew up. "I had been behind gates for a very, very long time."
Something was missing in her life, and Pepper found it in her hometown. She also had found David Normoyle, who in 2010 became her third husband. And now, with TV behind her, Dottie is in Saratoga much more often with David and their dog, J.P., in a home she loves.
"I was at the 2008 Evian Masters and Brian Hammons of Golf Channel was telling me he had decided to move back to Indianapolis from Orlando with his family," Pepper says. "We were flying back to New York and got stuck in a holding pattern. It was a beautiful, crystal-clear day. Guess where we got stuck circling? I looked down and I said, 'Holy crap, that's the track. That's Saratoga.' And I thought, 'This is kind of eerie.' Now if that's not an omen!"
That was late July. A month later Pepper placed a deposit on a house she had yet to see, checked out for her by her mother, grandmother and aunt. By October she had closed on the place. The spacious home is only eight years old but was built in a style that blends in beautifully with the town's Victorian architecture.
In a space decorated tastefully with antiques and plants -- Pepper is an avid gardener -- most of the golf memorabilia is confined to David's office out back and Dottie's upstairs. One wall bears the framed cover of the March 11, 1968, Sports Illustrated that features her dad, Don Pepper, along with future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench and three others, touting them as the best rookies in baseball. Don played seven years of pro ball, including four games in the majors with the Detroit Tigers.
A large fireplace burns beneath a flat-screen TV that for now at least is tuned to Golf Channel. Limping slightly from surgery on her left foot, Dottie talks to J.P. (for Jack Pot), a 13-year-old Bichon Frisť/Shih Tzu mix, as if expecting an answer as she shows the house.
"Why did I walk away from TV to take a non-paying position on the board of the PGA of America?" she asks with a laugh that punctuates many of her sentences. "The problem was merely the number of weeks I was being asked to work. I couldn't do what I wanted to do for the game long-term being in a suitcase for 32 weeks a year. I can't do that. I don't want to do that. I don't need to do that. I loved what I did. I miss the guys terribly that I worked with. But that offers no life other than calling golf shots. That's not really how I'm wired."
Pepper had simply had enough of life on the road and wanted to re-plant her passion and give it a new focus. But when she talks about missing the guys -- and the pro game -- it makes you think the door is not closed to some select appearances, perhaps at the majors, perhaps as soon as Merion. And that would give her the best of both worlds.
"I did a 35-week deal when I was working Golf Channel and NBC at the very beginning, and I got to come home to do laundry, unpack, repack and take a sick dog to the vet because she was literally heartbroken," Pepper says. "And, newly remarried, it's no way to have a foundation of two people traveling and crossing paths like boats in the night."
Her decision, conveyed last October to executive producer and senior vice president of Golf Channel Molly Solomon, stunned everyone. Pepper, who stepped behind the microphone full-time in 2005, had emerged as one of the most respected commentators and, along with mentor Judy Rankin, was a pioneer for women in covering the men's game.
"We could have made a how-to tape from her work last year at the Ryder Cup and FedEx Cup," says Tommy Roy, producer, live tournaments/Golf Channel on NBC. "She was unbelievably good. I would call Molly and say, 'Dottie said X today at such and such a time. Put it in the seminar [for other announcers].' It surprised us all that she quit. It was kind of like when [former NFL great] Barry Sanders retired [at 31]."
Those who worked with her agree that, as an announcer, Pepper's biggest strength was her preparation. "She always had a tidbit about a player, the course or the event," Roy says. She was also candid and possessed the crucial and hard-to-teach skill necessary for TV work: knowing when to jump in and out, rarely interrupting and never rambling.
The fact that she was so good on the air exacerbated the surprise about her departure. "I was shocked. We all were," says longtime NBC colleague Roger Maltbie. "Our contracts were all up, and we'd sit around talking about it and she was very interested in renegotiating. She just made up her mind one day for whatever reason. Her marriage to David seemed to change her. She wanted to get back home and spend more time with him."
Normoyle, a thirtysomething former assistant director of the USGA Museum before starting his own business teaching golf clubs how to preserve their histories, sees what the move back home has meant to Dottie. "I think sense-of-place matters to her," Normoyle says. "She is welcomed here as a successful golfer, but is treated as someone who belongs."
A day for Dottie and David starts with deciding who is going to walk the dog, and that is generally Dottie. Then both retreat to their offices and rendezvous for lunch, sometimes in town. Hopefully, they can sneak in nine holes about 6 p.m., then cook dinner at home with a nice bottle of wine. "We have a share in a local farm," Normoyle says. "We cook with fresh local food and freeze items to use in the winter."
Except for her parents -- Don, a facilities manager for the Bob Evans restaurant chain, and Lynn, who works for Visiting Angels -- who live in Columbus, Ohio, and her sister Jackie in Bellingham, Mass., pretty much the rest of Pepper's family is in Saratoga. That includes Pepper's Aunt Cathy and Uncle Jack, two sixtysomethings who are fit enough to pass for 40. (Jack, according to Dottie, is known to dive from the second-story deck of his home into a backyard swimming pool.)