Wake Forest has a long and storied tradition of golf success. But until recently, its roll call of champions — which includes the likes of Arnold Palmer, Curtis Strange and Jay Haas — has been the exclusive domain of the men.
It took some long drives and a short memory for a woman to finally gain entry into the boys club.
Jennifer Kupcho nearly became the Deacons’ first female national champion a year ago when she let a late lead slip away before settling for a runner-up finish. This time she built on an opening-round 65 to post a wire-to-wire victory at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla.
Her 8-under-par score was two shots better than Arizona’s Bianca Pagdanganan and Stanford’s Andrea Lee.
“It’s so exciting to get it started on the women’s side,” Kupcho said of her historic accomplishment. “It’s just an amazing feeling. It’s good to bounce back from last year, because that was such a heartbreak and now, I finally did it.”
Kupcho held a four-shot lead during the final round of the 2017 NCAA Championship and was still two strokes clear of the field when she put her second shot on the par-4 17th hole into the water.
She ended up taking triple bogey and finished one agonizing shot behind eventual winner Monica Vaughn of Arizona State.
Although she did her best to suppress the memory of that disappointment by opening the tournament with a course-record 65, then holding or being tied for the lead after each of the next two rounds, it came rushing back on Sunday when she dropped four shots over an early three-hole stretch.
“I had a little bit of a flashback that it was going to be just like last year,” said Kupcho, who is planning to return for her senior year rather than turning pro.
Instead, she quickly put those thoughts out of her mind and flipped the script by battling back from a four-shot deficit to regain the lead by the time she left the 16th hole.
“That golf course is a very difficult course,” Wake Forest coach Dianne Dailey said. “It’s one of those things where a lead can change in a heartbeat. My assistant (Ryan Potter) was walking with her and kept telling her to just keep playing her game, something will happen. I think that really calmed her down and helped her.”
While Potter helped Kupcho right the ship when her round began talking on water, it was the rest of her teammates that got her through the final few holes.
It was a boost that, according to the Colorado native, turned her individual championship into a team effort.
“That meant so much,” she said of the support she got from her fellow Deacons. “They were just being so loud and making me smile the whole time. I think it might have been a different story last year if they’d have been there when it happened. There would have been a lot of encouragement, and I would probably have been able to turn it around on 18.”
Even with that vocal support behind her, the final two holes were anything but easy.
She managed to hit a narrow fairway off the tee on No. 17 then, unaware that she held a one-shot lead, she decided to go for the green on the par-5 18th rather than playing it safe and laying up.
“I looked up and saw it was 200 yards,” she said. “If it had been more than that I would have had to hit 3-wood, and I might have questioned it a little bit. But because I had a hybrid in my hand and I hit that club so well, it never even crossed my mind to lay up.”
It turned out to be a good decision. Kupcho put the ball on the green and two-putted for a long-awaited championship that became even more emotional afterward when Dailey announced her retirement after 30 seasons as the Deacons’ coach.
“She told us when we got back to the hotel that night, and I think we were all in shock,” Kupcho said. “It’s just great to be able to do this for coach in her last season here.”
Dailey said that she’d already decided to retire before Kupcho won her title, but that the timing of the two made for a fitting exclamation point to a career that saw her lead Wake to 25 NCAA regionals and 14 team national championships.
“We’ve had some outstanding teams as well as individual performances, but never a national champion. That makes this one very special,” Dailey said. “It’s great for our program and the recognition these students deserve for all their hard work over the years.
“Everyone has been sort of laying the foundation and groundwork for this to happen for Jennifer, and I just love it for her because she’s such a great player. To be able to put yourself in position to win a national championship two years in a row is phenomenal. Not many people can come back and do that twice.”