RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — An odd game, golf, where one hits down to get the ball up, swings right to hit it left. Jennifer Kupcho is a comfortable fit with these contradictions, shy by nature, yet embracing the game’s biggest moments.
She did so again on Sunday, the day the LPGA bid adieu to its grandest stage for the better part of 51 years, the Dinah Shore Tournament Course at Mission Hills Country Club. Kupcho, 24, made her first LPGA victory a major one, winning the Chevron Championship by two shots, then taking the victor’s obligatory plunge into Poppie’s Pond, the last to do so in a tradition that Amy Alcott began in 1988.
“I think it’s surreal to be a major winner,” she said, “and to be the last person to jump into Poppie’s Pond, it’s all really special.”
Winning wasn’t easy. It usually isn’t. But she made it look harder than it might have been after staking herself to a six-stroke lead through 54 holes and increasing it to seven at one point in the final round. She squandered much of it before regaining her equilibrium with a tap-in birdie at the 15th hole to go four ahead with three to play.
It mattered not that she bogeyed two of the final three holes or that her score of two-over-par 74 was the highest of her four rounds by four shots. She gave herself a cushion with the 64 she posted in the third round, and completed 72 holes in 14-under-par 274, two ahead of Jessica Korda.
A Coloradoan who mastered a warm-weather game in snow country before heading off to Wake Forest, Kupcho became a star, No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and an NCAA individual champion. Three years ago, she won the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
“I don’t know if you can teach it, but the bigger the moment, the better she plays and the brighter she shines,” Wake Forest assistant head coach Ryan Potter told Colorado Avid Golfer. “The moment doesn’t bother her, and not many people are like that.”
She wasn’t necessarily sure of that, having gone without a victory in three-plus seasons as a professional. She admitted to doubting that the first would come.
“Yeah, for sure,” she said. “I have been so close a couple of times. It's just really hard sometimes. But here I am.
“I think once I started putting myself in contention and not succeeding, I really worked with my swing coach. He's also really good with the mental game. So just talking to him a lot about what's going through my mind all the time and trying to figure out how to process my way through that.”
She won with a club that also was a cause for concern, the putter. She made two putts greater than 10 feet on Thursday, three on Friday and five on Saturday, and made several key putts on Sunday with her lead slipping away.
“It's actually something she's been working on for a little while now,” Jay Monahan, her husband of little more than a month, said. “It's just something that's stroke related. For a while her through stroke was getting a little too far on the side, and so I honestly just set up a drill for her to kind of try and work through that, get the stroke a little more straight back, all more straight through, and she's been doing such a good job working on it. It's nice to see it pay off.”
Monahan caddies for Sarah Schmelzel and was still working when Kupcho began playing. “I was paying attention. I was thinking about it this morning, whether or not I was going to look, and it was too hard not to. I think I looked after hole number nine and then I had to look again after 16 just to hope that she was still in the same position she was when she started the day, if not better.”
She had adequately protected her lead, enabling her to enjoy the walk up 18, followed by the champagne shower she received from friend and eventually the leap into Poppie’s Pond. She was followed into the water by past champions Patty Sheehan, Patricia Meunier-Lebouc, Sandra Palmer and Amy Alcott—a wet farewell nod to a tournament heading to Houston.
“It's surreal,” Kupcho said, “to be able to say that I was the last person [to win] here and first person at Augusta.”