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Kupcho's collapse hands Vaughn NCAA title

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SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – Jennifer Kupcho leaned down to swat away a bug over her ball and wondered where the wind had gone.

With a two-shot lead in the NCAA Women’s Championship, all the Wake Forest sophomore needed to do Monday afternoon was escape the 17th hole and head to the par-5 finisher.

Standing over the ball, with 127 yards to the flag, she hoped that her pitching wedge was enough club.

“I hit it perfect,” she said. “It looked so good, right at it.”

Until it hit short, on the bank.

Until it rolled back into the pond.

Until she pitched on and three-putted for a triple bogey.

Until her two-shot lead turned into a one-shot deficit, which she wasn’t able to overcome on the final hole when her drive sailed right, near the hazard, and she couldn’t go for the green. Her closing par left her one shot behind Arizona State senior Monica Vaughn, who was finishing on the front nine at Rich Harvest Farms and remained oblivious to the disaster on the other side of the property.

“I had no idea,” said Vaughn, who shot 1-over 217 to capture the NCAA individual title. “I got no feeling that I might be the champion.”

As she walked to the scoring tent, Vaughn was mobbed by her teammates and soaked in a water bath, never mind the 55-degree weather.

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As much as the day might be remembered for Kupcho’s collapse, Vaughn, ranked No. 18 in the country, was not a surprise winner.

Throw out a first-round 84 at the Pac-12 Championship, and she has been one of the hottest players in college golf. She had four top-3 finishes in her last five starts, including a victory at regionals.

It didn’t even hit her that Monday might be her last day as a Sun Devil until head coach Missy Farr-Kaye addressed the team in the morning.

“We all started crying,” Vaughn said. “But I was able to pull it together. It’s an amazing feeling.”

And yet it still was an awkward end to what was a blustery final round of stroke play, not least because Vaughn finished her round on the other side. The top two players in college golf this season, Kupcho and Duke’s Leona Maguire, both wiped away tears as they walked toward the clubhouse.

In a tight race for the season-ending Annika Award as the nation’s top player, Kupcho and Maguire stood next to each other at the trophy presentation, connected by their disappointment and their tie for second.

“It’s easy to focus on the last few holes,” Maguire said of Kupcho, “but it’s days like today that make the wins even sweeter.”

How would Wake Forest coach Dianne Dailey console her talented star? Not even she was sure the best approach, and she has 29 years of experience.

“I know it’s terribly disappointing,” Dailey said, “but she’s had such success and she will continue to have success.”

Wake Forest desperately could have used an individual title after a turbulent spring.

After all, this was supposed to be the year that the Demon Deacons finally won a national title for their longtime coach, but they didn’t even advance to nationals.

They battled injuries all season. Their two hotshot freshmen, Sierra Brooks and Mathilda, left school in the spring. In order to field a team for the ACC Championship, Dailey called up a player on the school’s club team.

Even Kupcho had her own share of drama, after she suffered a concussion during a freak accident and was shaken up for more than a month. She recovered to end the season with a flourish, finishing second at ACCs and winning regionals for her third title.

Here at NCAAs, Kupcho was unburdened, able to play freely and concentrate on her own game. She shot 74 in the most difficult conditions Friday, carded a 70 on Sunday to take a one-shot lead, and then built a four-shot lead with four holes to play in the final round.

“She looked so comfortable out there,” Dailey said.

And then it all came undone, first with a bogey on 14 and then the shocking mistake on 17.

The emotions were still so raw when she was asked what she would take from the day.

At last, a smile.

“Take the extra club over water, I guess.”