Wake Forest’s Jennifer Kupcho makes history at Augusta

College golf’s top women’s player rallied to win the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur

Jennifer Kupcho celebrates after sinking a putt on the 18th hole to win the Augusta National Women's Amateur golf tournament Saturday in Augusta, Ga. (David Goldman / AP Photo)

Augusta National Golf Club has seen its share of legendary charges over the years.

Arnold Palmer turned them into an art form during his heyday in the 1960s while Jack Nicklaus produced the most famous one in Masters history by making up five shots on the back nine in 1986 to win his record sixth green jacket at the age of 46.

None of those charges, however, were as historic as the one Jennifer Kupcho pulled off on Saturday.

The Wake Forest senior and reigning NCAA champion roared from behind by playing her final six holes in five-under par to earn victory in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur. By doing so, she etched her name in the record books at the first female player to ever win a tournament at the storied course.

“It’s always a great feeling to win,” said Kupcho, whose final round 67 gave her a three-day total of 206 — 10-under par and four shots better than runner-up Maria Fassi of Arkansas. “But I think to win at Augusta National, just to get to walk the fairways and walk up 18 with as many fans as there were, it’s an experience like none other.”

Kupcho, the No. 1 ranked women’s amateur in the country, led after each of the first two rounds. But her chances at going wire-to-wire took a turn for the worse when she suffered a migraine while waiting to hit her tee shot on the par-5 eighth hole.

In addition to the pain, she also suffered from blurred vision that made it difficult to line up her putts. By the time she began to see things clearly again, she was almost all the way around Amen Corner and two shots behind Fassi, her playing partner.

That’s when her charge went into full gear, starting with an approach to the iconic 13th green she called “one of the best shots I’ve ever hit.”

It was a 211-yard 3-hybrid that landed 5 feet from the hole. She made the putt for the only eagle of the tournament and never looked back.

“She’s not afraid to be great,” runner-up Fassi said. “And that’s what makes her great.”

Kupcho made birdies at 15 and 16 before finishing with a flourish by sinking a 20-foot putt for another birdie on an 18th green surrounded by a large gallery that included Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez and Annika Sorenstam.

“I found a new gear,” Kupcho said. “I think after I got through the migraine, it was kind of smooth sailing from there. I really knew that I was going to get my vision back. I knew I was going to be able to make some shots and rely on my caddie to help me read the greens.”

The 21-year-old Colorado native called her victory at Augusta the most meaningful of her young career, which is saying something considering the impressive resume she’s already compiled.

It’s a win that would never have happened had she not chosen to put what promises to be a lucrative professional career on hold to return to school for her senior year. She doesn’t plan to turn pro until after she tries to defend her national title at the NCAA championships in Fayetteville, Ark., next month.

“I just wanted to go back to Wake Forest and get my degree,” she said. “Along with that, my team has always been great to me and I know that I definitely set a good example to them. I know that they will definitely follow in my footsteps. To compete alongside them, I wouldn’t want to leave them halfway through the season.”

Kupcho’s loyalty to her teammates was reciprocated last weekend by her fellow Deacons, who followed her around Augusta National offering their support and encouragement.

“I knew they were all coming and I knew it was going to be a team experience,” she said. “I know no matter what, they always have my back.”

The fact that they were all there to celebrate women’s golf at a club that only admitted its first female members less than a decade ago made the occasion all the more significant.

It was a historic event that, fittingly, began with Kupcho hitting the first shot ever taken in competition by a woman at Augusta National and ended with her making the final putt to join the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Watson and Woods as a winner there.

“For me to hit the first tee shot of the tournament, just to open it up, was a great honor to be able to do that,” she said. “Then to be able to hit the last putt and to win, it’s just amazing. It’s an amazing feeling.”