Dottie Pepper learned the art of retirement at an early age.
In a practice round during her rookie season on the LPGA Tour, she wound up behind someone Pepper would describe as an aging veteran who had no business being out there. Pepper turned to her sister, who caddied for her that summer, and told her, "Don't ever let me get to that point."
Two years after her first shoulder surgery, when those blue eyes didn't blaze with quite as much intensity and Pepper began to realize there was more to life than chasing around a little white golf ball, she announced her retirement at the 2004 U.S. Women's Open when she was 38.
Her retirement Sunday after eight years with NBC Sports was not much different.
"I would have to say this is similar to when Barry Sanders retired because she's going out on top of her game," said Tommy Roy, NBC's executive producer of golf who gave Pepper a chance, coached and critiqued her, and was sorry to see her go. "Her work this year on the FedEx Cup and the Ryder Cup was impeccable. You could take her work and make a 'how-to' tape for future broadcasters."
Her last day at work was Sunday at the Father-Son Challenge in Orlando, Fla., the end of a ride that Pepper, 47, could not have imagined.
It was former NBC staffer John Goldstein who persuaded Roy to give her a shot at the '04 Women's Open, and Pepper took it from there. She started work in 2005 during the Florida swing on the PGA Tour, and then got her big break at her first U.S. Open that summer. She was assigned the next-to-last group, and walked the final round at Pinehurst No. 2 with the champion, Michael Campbell.
"You can't dream up an assignment like that," Pepper said. "My very first Open and I walk in the winner."
Just like her retirement from playing, however, Pepper caught herself pulled in another direction.
She was tired of the travel, for one thing, and she found her passion shifting to junior golf. The PGA of America called on her again, and this time, Pepper listened. She decided at the Ryder Cup to leave her role as the most prominent female golf analyst and join the PGA of America's board of directors, where she can work on developing junior golf programs.
Roy was effusive with praise.
"The great thing about Dottie is not many players could come over from the LPGA and analyze in a critical way how the PGA Tour players and still be respected by those players," he said. "She garnered so much respect from the players. She came over and fit right in."
That's all Pepper really wanted.
Roy said he would like to have another LPGA Tour player work the U.S. Women's Open next summer on Long Island, though it is not imperative for the NBC team to find another woman to fill Pepper's role. It was never about gender, and Pepper never saw it that way.
"It's been the greatest thing because I was treated as a reporter and an analyst, not because I was a woman," she said. "I was expected to toe the line. No matter how bad the weather was, how tough the walk was, I was to do everything the guys did. And that's how I wanted it."