Jennifer Kupcho is a rising star and not just at this week’s U.S. Women’s Open at the Country Club of Charleston.
In the U.S. sports world.
Kupcho’s fellow LPGA tour rookies know it. So do the greats of the game. Among those fascinated by Kupcho’s victory last month in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur were green jacket owners Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
Player got a kick out of the way the Wake Forest senior showed poise in holding off Maria Fassi of the University of Arkansas.
“It’s really remarkable,” Player said at the Masters.
Sure, Kupcho was capable; she won the 2018 NCAA individual championship. But Augusta tournament newbies are supposed to cower not dominate, cringe not sizzle.
Kupcho took chances.
Nicklaus couldn’t believe how well Kupcho and other Augusta National Women’s Amateur leaders handled the notoriously complex nuances of Amen Corner and elsewhere with the benefit of just a single practice round.
“For somebody to have not played this golf course and to have made those putts, having only seen the golf course the day before, it’s pretty sensational,” Nicklaus said.
Kupcho’s biggest Augusta National takeaway?
“How many people were watching women’s golf,” she said after a practice round Tuesday. “The amount of support we got — direct messages, texts, everything — was probably the biggest thing.”
What a last few months it has been.
Kupcho’s Augusta victory lap included an appearance with Fassi on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
She graduated from Wake Forest with a communications degree.
She gave up her Women’s U.S. Open amateur exemption to turn pro, which required sectional qualifying at a tournament in Greensboro on April 29.
Kupcho won that event.
“It was a lot of fun,” Kupcho, a native of the Denver suburb of Westminster, Colo., said of her post-Augusta fame. “And really just the recognition that we got. It was really exciting to see everyone following women’s golf and women’s amateur golf. It was definitely very tiring but a lot of fun.”
Both Kupcho and Fassi, whose camaraderie was showcased in the final round at Augusta, are making their pro debuts at the U.S. Women’s Open. They are in a Thursday/Friday grouping including Sierra Brooks of the University of Florida.
Fassi, already a big deal in her native Mexico, won the NCAA individual championship on May 20 at Arkansas’ home course.
Brooks was the runner-up at the NCAA championship. She won the College of Charleston’s Cougar Classic last fall at Yeamans Hall Club in Hanahan.
“I think everyone — all the fans, all the world — wanted to see Maria and I play together again,” Kupcho said. “I think a lot of people think we were just putting on an act (at Augusta). I think they’ll really see that that’s how Maria and I are with each other, no matter how we’re playing or anything. So I think it will be great to show that to the world.”
It was almost Fassi who won at Augusta. But Kupcho played the final six holes at five-under par.
That’s how Nicklaus finished when he roared to his iconic sixth Masters victory in 1986, stunning the golf world at 46.
Kupcho had an eagle at 13.
“Pretty special play,” Nicklaus said. “We can’t find many of the guys do something like that, but have a young lady … What is she, about 20? Or 21?”
She turned 22 on May 14.
'A little nerve-racking'
Player got more analytical, emphasizing the importance of a stellar short game in a golf era in which high-tech equipment fuels power, if not accuracy.
“These women are coming into golf now and these young people are coming into golf now realizing that if they shoot par it doesn’t mean a thing,” said Player, a three-time Masters winner. “So they’re adjusting their mind according to the conditions.”
By the way, only five players have won a tournament at Augusta National and an individual NCAA championship:
Her youth golf experience includes a runner-up finish in a Colorado junior event at seven years old and experience at the Country Club of Charleston; Kupcho at 16 played there in the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur.
This week is a little different.
“To get to play against the best players in the world on the biggest stage for my first event is really exciting,” she said. “A little nerve-racking but it will be fun.”
The Augusta experience should help, this week and for as long as Jennifer Kupcho plays golf.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff