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Jennifer Kupcho is a part of golf history. The Saturday before the 2019 Masters, the world’s top-ranked women’s amateur was among a field of 30 cut from 72 to play the final round of the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Kupcho’s tee shot on Wednesday had opened the two rounds of competition at Champions Retreat Golf Club before the tournament’s final round at Augusta National.
What was a stroke-play event felt like match play as attention was focused on the final pairing featuring Wake Forest’s Kupcho and Arkansas’ Maria Fassi.
The two were the only collegiate players to make it through 2018 LPGA Tour Q school and defer their status until after they graduated last spring. Kupcho was mesmerizing on the back nine at Augusta, overcoming a migraine to go five under par on the final six holes, shooting 67 to win by four strokes. She went on to graduate, join the LPGA, and finish the season 39th on the money list. Nearly a year later, after moving from Colorado to Arizona, she spoke with us about the round that changed her life.
How did you first hear about the tournament at Augusta National, and what was your reaction?
I heard about it when they announced it during the 2018 Masters. I was really excited, and then we all realized it was at the same time as the ANA Inspiration [a major on the LPGA Tour that includes top amateurs], so I wasn’t sure how that would work out. Everyone had questions about that. But I was excited to try to qualify and hopefully have the opportunity to play.
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How did you choose between the two?
I received the invite to the ANWA first and actually turned it down. We had, I think, five regular-season college tournaments booked up straight into Augusta, and I would just miss so much school, there was no way I could do it. But then my college coach [Kim Lewellen] canceled one of the tournaments, so I was like, OK, I could make this work. Around the end of January, I called [the director of golf development] and asked if I could play. They had a spot in the field and said I was more than welcome to play. The ANA invite came a week later, and I told them that I’d be at Augusta.
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What was it like arriving at Augusta National? Had you been there before?
The year before, I played Augusta with my Wake Forest team. Growing up, I’d never thought playing there was even an option. At the ANWA, we didn’t go to the Augusta National grounds until the chairman’s dinner on Tuesday. I think the way it was scheduled built up so much excitement in everyone. We just wanted to be on the grounds.
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What did you get to see?
Everyone in the tournament got to see the clubhouse, locker room, Crow’s Nest, and got a tour of the grounds. With Arnold Palmer having gone to Wake Forest, it was really special to see things like his locker there. I didn’t get to see Butler Cabin, the media center and the tunnels until I won.
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I’m sure it helped to have played the course before the tournament (in addition to the practice round on Friday before Saturday’s finish).
Definitely. I had already experienced that awe factor. So by the time I got there for the practice round, I could focus on learning the course instead of looking around being like, Oh my gosh, this is so cool! Obviously, you still feel like that, but the effect was less.
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Like others in the field, you switched to a local caddie once you got to Augusta National. Was it a tough decision?
It was really hard. Showing up to the practice round at Augusta, after my dad caddied the first two rounds, we were just going to see how it went. I had my same caddie in the practice round that I played with the year before. Going through the course it was clear how much Brian [McKinley] knew that there’s no way you could ever write it all down in a yardage book. Like knowing differences in slopes, knowing all the yardage markers by memory, knowing the greens, all of the breaks—he knew everything about the course. Then my dad and I knew it was a no-brainer. The funny part is, I told the media before I had the conversation with my dad. There’s no hurt feelings, but at the time he was like, “You could’ve told me first.” But I was like, “Well, the media was asking, so I just gave them the answer.”
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There had to be moments during the tournament that you were happy you had a local caddie.
He was a huge role in my success in that round. The read on my eagle putt on 13, I saw it going the other way, and he was like, “No way.” He was right. That was a big one [the eagle giving Kupcho a share of the led with Fassi]. And then the whole three holes of my migraine, I just leaned on him to read the greens and tell me where to at least attempt to hit it.
‘It really encourages girls to pick up a club. To see us be able to do
it on the biggest stage, Augusta National, was huge.’
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What does it feel like when you get a migraine?
I had them a lot in high school. I got used to it. I’d play basketball games and golf tournaments with migraines. But the one at Augusta was my first since high school. When I first get them, it’s really blurry; I can’t see. As the blurry vision goes away, I get a massive, pounding headache. It started on the eighth green and didn’t go away until the 11th tee shot.
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How have you tried to make them go away?
I take a caffeine pill, drink lots of water, take pain medicine, take deep breaths and close my eyes. During the ninth and 10th holes, I walked down most of the fairway with my eyes closed. I told my caddie what was going on. I think he was worried but tried to stay calm because he didn’t want to freak me out.
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How hard was it to hit a shot with limited vision?
After so many hours of practicing, it becomes muscle memory. It’s blurry, but from practicing I can know approximately where the ball is.
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Was that the hardest thing you’ve experienced in a tournament?
Yes, just because there was so much on the line. When it happened I was like, Why now? Why does this have to happen to me now?
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Do you have an idea what caused it?
My mom and I talked about it after. We were pretty sure it was dehydration. Something that we realized in high school was that if I ate a lot of chocolate, I got migraines. That whole week there was so much sugar everywhere, so that could’ve been it.
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What’s your favorite shot you hit during that round?
My two favorites were the hybrids on 13 and 15. Thirteen because it led to my eagle. Fifteen was so cool because I play a fade, but standing over the ball, I was like, Screw it, I’m going to try to hit a draw. I don’t know what I was thinking, taking a risk during the biggest moment of my career. But adrenaline took over, and I was like, I’m totally going to pull this shot off. And it worked—I was just over the green in two and two-putted for birdie.
What was the best moment of the week?
Walking up to the first tee and seeing how many people were there. Everyone was so excited to see us play; that was insane. I had never played in that type of situation. Getting to experience it with friends I’d made in college golf, knowing we were the first women to compete there, was really special.
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Did you stay in Augusta after the win?
I gave out trophies to the Drive, Chip and Putt winners alongside Patrick Reed the next day. Then that afternoon I flew to New York with Maria, and we were on the “Today” show and Jimmy Fallon, and then I had to go back to class. Going back to campus, I was trying to balance school and golf and get back to being with my team, but with so many media requests it was hard. I had no idea what was going to happen or how to prepare for it. It all came in a rush. Trying to practice and get ready [for the ACC Championship two weeks later], and do everything I needed to do to be ready, was definitely a battle. But it was so cool to see how the tournament blew up.
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What did the win mean to you?
It was huge. Obviously, I still had college tournaments left, but it was the end of my amateur golf and then the beginning of my professional career, marking me moving on from one section of my life to another. It really helped me be comfortable playing in front of crowds, and it helped me calm my nerves under pressure.
What do you think it meant for women’s golf?
It was a great display for younger girls, whether they’re participating in golf already or just watching it on television because their parents have it on. For them to see the way everything played out, the friendship that Maria and I have, it really encourages girls to pick up a club. To see us be able to do it on the biggest stage, Augusta National, was huge.
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Have you ben back since the tournament?
I haven’t. It’d be cool to go and relive all those memories and walk down the fairways again. I’ve watched the coverage a couple times. It’s crazy watching it—to see what the cameras see, and know what I was thinking during specific shots or moments, it’s surreal.
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Did you learn something at Augusta that has helped you transition into professional golf?
I went in relaxed. I realize now that was a big part in my success. I used to go into tournaments stressed out, focusing on things that were going wrong. At ANWA, I was just experiencing it and having fun. That’s one of the big things that I’ve carried over to my professional career. If something doesn’t go right, I know I’ll figure it out and make it up in another part of my game.
Photographs by Donald Miralle