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Uber-competitive Jennifer Kupcho has never backed down from a challenge

April 2, 2019

Editor’s note: Much has changed at Augusta National in the decade since then-chairman Hootie Johnson, responding to increased pressure to admit female members, famously said, “There may well come a day when women are invited to join our membership, but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet.” Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore became the first women members in 2012 and more have joined since, but the club’s boldest acknowledgment of the need to evolve was the formation of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, an annual event debuting this April that will conclude on the Saturday before the Masters. Most golf fans have never seen a woman swing a club on Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie’s masterpiece — that’s about to change.

The story of this breakthrough event isn’t only about Augusta National unlocking its gates, it’s also about the talented women marching through them. In this series, we’ll introduce you to five of them.

Next on the tee: Jennifer Kupcho

(ICYMI: Alexa Pano’s star keeps rising — and she’s still only 14)
(ICYMI: Sage Spartan Ally Geer-Park readies for ANWA)
(ICYMI: Rose Zhang’s game has risen to new heights — just don’t tell her that)
(ICYMI: ‘Two weeks to prepare’: Tristyn Nowlin was never going to miss the ANWA)

* * * *

Jennifer Kupcho and Lauren Coughlin stood on the 18th tee at Sedgefield Country Club tied. With the ACC title on the line, Coughlin, a Virginia senior, made birdie to win, handing the Wake Forest freshman a runner-up finish.

Kim Lewellen was the Virginia women’s golf coach at the time. Now, three years later, she’s half a year into her first season at Wake Forest. That freshman, Kupcho, is now a senior.

“I knew she was going to be someone to contend with back then, and now I’m glad she is on my team,” Lewellen says. “I came in in July to coaching the No. 1 Am in the world and a national champion. I was just thinking, Don’t mess her up.”

Jennifer Kupcho was invited to play in the Marathon LPGA Classic in 2018, and she tied for 16th.
Jennifer Kupcho was invited to play in the Marathon LPGA Classic in 2018, and she tied for 16th.
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Kupcho, 21, has morphed into a dominant force in the women’s game. She set her school scoring record as a sophomore, won the Canadian Women’s Amateur and was the runner-up at the NCAA Championship. Last year she broke her own scoring record, won the NCAA title and was the national player of the year. She also claimed the No. 1 spot in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking in July, which she still holds today and will take into this week’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur, where she’ll be among the favorites to win the inaugural event.

“After she got to Wake we would have never guessed in your wildest dreams the kinds of things she would accomplish,” said Mike Kupcho, Jennifer’s dad, who helped teach the game to Jennifer and her older brother. “Now to add this inaugural tournament at Augusta, you would have never dreamed of that either. You kind of get used to it, but it’s still kind of like, oh, OK, one more thing.”

Kupcho, who’s from Westminster, Colo., boasts pro-level swing speed, hits it a mile and is a top-notch ball-striker, but her best attribute? She oozes competitiveness.

During recent Spoons card games with teammates she was diving across tables grasping for utensils — “I think she won every game,” Lewellen says — and when the Wake Forest team room added a pool table, Kupcho nearly moved in until she finally beat one of her teammates. A race to the team van? She’s sprinting. A chipping drill at practice? Sure, she’ll do it, but change the stakes to get up and down 20 times in a row or start over and she won’t lose.

Case in point: the 2018 NCAAs. Kupcho was the runner-up as a sophomore in 2017 and was tied for the lead heading down the stretch in 2018. Then, on the 16th hole at Karsten Creek Golf Club, she drained a monster 65-foot birdie putt to take the lead en route to her victory. Her stare (as the putt was tracking), first-pump (when it fell) and smile (in her triumphant walk to the hole) encapsulated that competitive nature.

“When she gets in that mode,” Lewellen says, “she is a blast to watch.”

Jennifer Kupcho drained a long birdie putt on the 16th hole to secure her NCAA title.
Jennifer Kupcho drained a long birdie putt on the 16th hole to secure her NCAA title.
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What’s ironic about Kupcho playing the ANWA is the fact that she nearly declined the invite. The Wake senior has a busy year ahead after she finished second at LPGA Q-Series in the fall. She deferred her LPGA membership so she could return to school and graduate, and she has plans to turn pro and join the tour in June. But with a grueling summer of pro golf looming and the vigorous travel that comes with it, she was afraid of burning out before her next chapter even started. Her schedule got even busier when Wake added another spring event after a rain-plagued fall. Plus, the Demon Deacons brought back five players from last year’s team that qualified for nationals and added two strong freshmen, and Kupcho felt like she owed them her best, too.

“She had everything very well mapped out,” Lewellen says. “She’s such a planner and being thoughtful with her schedule, and she wanted to be top notch for regionals and NCAAs and conference finals. I thought that was a mature decision.”

But not long after the ANWA invites landed in mailboxes, one of Wake’s spring tournaments was canceled. Kupcho felt that change gave her the breathing room to accept the invitation.

Now, she’s hoping to advance through the first two rounds at Champions Retreat and take another shot at Augusta. She’s already played there once as a sophomore when her team was invited (she shot one under from the member tees). Kupcho thinks course experience and the jitters that came with it should work to her benefit, much like what she experienced at the U.S. Women’s Open, where she followed a missed cut in her first year (2016) with a T21 in her second.

“I wouldn’t say I really have [added] pressure,” Kupcho says of being among the favorites. “I just try not to think about it and I just go out and play my own game.”