AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jennifer Kupcho thought the honor of hitting the first-ever shot at the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur last Wednesday would be tough to top. Three days later, she did just that by getting to hit the championship’s very last one—and making history in the process.
When the 21-year-old senior at Wake Forest rolled in a 20-foot birdie on Augusta National’s 18th hole, it closed out a final-round 67, a four-stroke victory over Maria Fassi and the most memorable week of her golf career. Which is saying something when you’re the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world, the reigning NCAA champion and already have status on the LPGA Tour.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Kupcho, the wire-to-wire winner with a 10-under 206 total. “I don’t think it’s set in yet. It probably won’t set in for a little while.”
Can you blame her? How do you absorb all the emotions on display at Augusta National on Saturday, with thousands of spectators watching women compete for the first time on the famed course?
The crazy part about of it all is that mid-way through the biggest round of Kupcho’s life, it didn’t look like things were going to end in such storybook fashion. On the eighth green, unknown to everyone following the leaders as they made their way around the course, Kupcho began to feel the onset of a migraine headache, a condition that bothered her regularly as an up-and-coming junior golfer growing up in the Denver suburb of Westminster, Colo.
Along with the pain came blurred vision, which got so extreme that she said she couldn’t see the lines she marked on her golf ball when standing over a putt.
Kupcho said the problem persisted through the next two holes, largely contributing to her lone three-putt of the tournament on the 10th hole. It was her only bogey of the day, but it caused her to fall two strokes back of Fassi.
“I just told myself, ‘Hey, you got it. Relax. There's nothing you can do,’ ” Kupcho said. “And I think going through my head, I just knew that the blurriness would go away, and then I know it just comes with a bad headache after, so I was going to be able to recover.”
And indeed, after hitting her tee shot on the 11th hole, her vision returned, and Kupcho was able to focus on the task at hand: How to catch her friend and rival.
Fassi, a 21-year-old from Mexico in the midst of her senior season at the University of Arkansas, started the round one back of Kupcho and was paired with her in the final twosome. She proceeded to bogey the first hole to fall two back, but then made four birdies on her next seven holes. Among the longest hitters in the field, Fassi looked like she was taking command of the round, as the rest of the 30 players who advanced to play the final 18 at Augusta National (the opening two rounds of the event where held at nearby Champions Retreat) couldn’t mount a charge. (No other player finished within four strokes of the final twosome.)
But it was Kupcho who did the damage on the inward par 5s. On the 13th hole, she hit a 3-hybrid for her second shot to 15 feet and made the eagle putt (the lone eagle of the round) to tie for the lead at seven under when Fassi could only muster a par.
Fassi wasn’t flustered, making a birdie on the 14th to grab the lead back. But a wayward drive on the par-5 15th forced her to lay up back into the fairway. Kupcho once again went for the green in two with the 3-hybrid, her ball rolling just over the green. She used a putter from off the green and just missed a second eagle, but the birdie tied things up again.
On the par-3 16th in what had turned into a match-play scenario, Kupcho had the honor and hit a 6-iron above the hole. Starring it down, she watched her ball trickle to eight feet below the cup, putting the pressure on her opponent. Fassi’s tee shot went a little higher and a little farther right, preventing it from catching the slope and leaving her in a seemingly impossible spot, 35 feet from the cup. Fassi’s birdie try went six feet past the hole. Kupcho made her birdie, Fassi missed her par and suddenly Kucpho had a two-stroke edge. A similar birdie-bogey exchange on the 18th hole, when the tournament was already settled, lifted the winning margin to four strokes. It also meant that Kupcho played the final six holes in five under par.
“That’s the kind of player she is,” said Fassi, who finished with a third-straight 70. “She’ll do that when she has to. That’s one of the things I admire and respect most about her. She’s not afraid of going for it, and she’s not afraid to be great.”
Fassi and Kucpho have become fast friends in the last six months. Both entered LPGA Q series last December despite each still being seniors in college, and the duo was among seven amateurs to earn LPGA status for 2019. But only Fassi and Kupcho decided to defer playing on tour until after their college seasons wrapped up this spring. It was a decision that some were critical of, but it was an easy one to make in Kupcho’s mind.
“I just wanted to go back to Wake Forest and get my degree,” she said. “Along with that, my team has always been great to me, and I know that I … definitely set a good example to them and I know that they will definitely follow in my footsteps; and to compete alongside them. I wouldn’t want to leave them halfway through the season.”
The notion of going back to school, however, wasn’t one Kupcho was too fond of as the import of her win began to settle in.
“It’s going to suck,” she joked. “I haven’t looked at a book or anything. I've gotten e-mails and I’m just like, ‘Nope, not looking at that. That's unimportant right now.’ I actually don't have class Monday, Wednesday, Friday. So I have until Tuesday to get myself together, but work hard, almost less than a month until I'm done, so just do that and move on.”
Kupcho has three more college tournaments: the ACC Championship, NCAA Women’s Regionals and the NCAA Women’s Championship, where she hopes to become the first player to repeat as medalist in the event’s 37-year history. Then it’s on to the LPGA.
But before taking that last step, Kupcho is appreciative of the opportunity she had this week in helping establish a championship that she hopes can help spark interest in the game.
“Coming out of it with Maria in the final group with me, I think both of us kind of just wanted to send the message that golf is about having friends, and to be out there with her, we were cheering each other on, and that's kind of how golf is supposed to be,” Kupcho said. “And to make it look fun; it is fun. So to make it look that way for everyone watching, I hope it encourages people to pick up a club and go play.”