Jennifer Kupcho hoists the ANWA trophy (ANWA photo)
AUGUSTA, Ga. – It’s such a simple message, but from the fairways of Augusta National, it resonated: Golf with your friends. Jennifer Kupcho doesn’t need it to be any more complicated than that.
The inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur was, to some level, a week of over-analyzing. How would female amateurs handle Augusta National? Why didn’t they get more time there? How much attention would it deflect from the LPGA?
But Kupcho, the inaugural champion, repeatedly reminded golf fans that for now, to be here is enough.
Kupcho, 21, went 5 under over her final six holes, surging abruptly ahead of runner-up Maria Fassi, also 21, in a back-nine horserace that was reminiscent of Sunday at the Masters. What was different about that scene was how they shared it. There were fist bumps after birdies and a seconds-long embrace on the 18th green before the two walked into the biggest crowd of on-lookers that either may ever play in front of again. That statement stands despite the fact that both are headed to the LPGA after finishing their senior season at Wake Forest and Arkansas, respectively.
Saturday’s scene was unlike anything that women’s amateur golf has seen. One coach, also a former player, compared the parking lot scene to Field of Dreams. “If you build it, they will come,” she said. Many others familiar with this sector of the game were pinching themselves in disbelief.
It was surreal at the first tee on Saturday morning, with Augusta National members standing on the tee box and thousands of patrons entering the grounds, not to mention when Kupcho and Fassi reached Amen Corner.
Kupcho used the platform in the most understated but effective way.
“I think both of us just kind of wanted to send the message that golf is about having friends…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.”
What you see is what you get with Kupcho. She is competitive and she is tough, but doesn't overdo either. On Saturday, a migraine came on strong at No. 8, making her vision so blurry that she struggled to see the hole when putting.
“I mean, on nine green I said, ‘I can’t see anything, so just tell me where to hit it,’” Kupcho said. She made par there.
Kupcho’s final-round 67 was Saturday’s lowest score. Even though she trailed Fassi by two at the turn, Kupcho made her move on the remaining par 5s. She reached No. 13 with a 3-hybrid to make eagle – the only one of the day – and two-putted for birdie at No. 15 from the back fringe to tie it. When Kupcho birdied No. 16, Fassi bogeyed it for a two-shot swing from which Fassi couldn’t come back.
“She’ll do that when she has to. That’s one of the things I admire and respect about her,” Fassi said. “She’s not afraid of going for it. She’s not afraid to be great.”
Kim Lewellen, in her first year as head coach at Wake Forest, got her first glimpse of how Kupcho ticks in a team dinner she hosted at her house. A game of spoons started out harmless enough, until Kupcho was scrambling on top of the table to make sure she won. She’s the same player who will sprint to the team van to win a foot race and also the same player who will quietly make sure that a program that is important to her continues in the right direction.
Kupcho was instrumental in helping Lewellen with the little things this fall.
“A leader by looking after her teammates, helping her coach figure out where everything is, and just a competitor, which I think is a great example for the team,” Lewellen said.
Talent-wise, she’s one of the best drivers in the women’s college game, and with a physical ability and “flatlining” demeanor that reminds assistant coach Ryan Potter of Dustin Johnson.
Longtime Wake Forest head coach Dianne Dailey retired at the end of last season, but Potter has been a constant in Kupcho’s career there. He walked alongside her for a huge portion of the past two NCAA Women’s Championships, much like a caddie would. After making a triple bogey at the 71st hole in 2017 that cost her the title, she came back to win by two shots in 2018.
Courtesy of her top-5 position in the Golfweek
/Sagarin College Rankings at the end of that season, Kupcho received an exemption into October’s LPGA Q-Series, an eight-round marathon with 48 LPGA cards on the line. Amateurs have always been able to enter, but for the first time this year, the LPGA allowed amateurs who earned a card to defer until the end of the college season.
Eight amateurs entered, but only Kupcho and Fassi deferred.
Lewellen was pretty certain that’s the decision she would make. She and Kupcho had visited in her office before the tournament. Even as committed as Kupcho was to Wake Forest, it still stung a bit when the first LPGA tournament of the 2019 season rolled around and Kupcho was at home watching her friends compete.
“I think that was probably, at the time, tough for her to see,” Lewellen said.
Potter played a role in that deferment, too, even though he didn’t realize it at the time. Kupcho wanted to earn her degree and to be there for her team, but she also wanted to return his commitment to her. Kupcho verbalized that several times throughout the week at ANWA.
“That means a lot to me personally,” Potter said. “To be that successful but also to think about others? … To me, it was just touching.”
Lewellen and Potter know they lucked out to have the nation’s top player retain her anchor role despite having such an enticing offer on the table. Many other teams weren't so fortunate.
Besides the fact that Kupcho and Fassi were easy to root for because of their desire to honor commitments they made to their teams, they put on exactly the show that, frankly, patrons needed to see to back up a bold decision by Augusta National.
“I think that's what women's golf should look like every Sunday in the last group,” Fassi said.