AUGUSTA, Ga. – Male or female, professional or amateur, Jennifer Kupcho put on a show Saturday that Augusta National had never before seen.
The first player to hit a tee shot in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur more importantly struck the last putt – a 20-footer for birdie that capped a frenetic finish and punctuated a historic day for women’s golf.
After playing the last six holes in 5 under to race past Maria Fassi, Kupcho embraced her close friend on the 18th green as the crowd – wrapped 15 deep around the closing hole – roared its approval.
“Get used to this,” Fassi told her, “because we’re going to be doing this in the near future on the LPGA.”
Kupcho (Wake Forest) and Fassi (Arkansas) – the reigning NCAA individual champion and 2018 college player of the year, respectively – earned their LPGA cards last fall but deferred membership until June, complicated decisions that allowed them to finish their college degrees but also compete in this groundbreaking tournament.
The 30 participants in the final round here were trailblazers in a new era for the women’s game, even if they’re all too young to recall the contentiousness bred by the club’s past exclusionary practices. After all, it was just 17 years ago that Martha Burk and her women’s advocacy group first challenged the club over its all-male membership. Then-chairman Hootie Johnson responded that he wouldn’t be bullied into admitting a female member – at least “not at the point of a bayonet” – and famously cut TV sponsorship dollars for two years to make his point. Women were shut out until 2012, and though the club doesn’t comment on its membership, the number of female members is now believed to have grown to six.
Of course, admitting females was a moral issue, not a legal one, and last year chairman Fred Ridley continued the club’s slow but steady evolution. During the 2018 Masters, his first at the helm, Ridley announced the formation of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, trumpeting that the females were “vital to the future of golf” and that the event will have a “long-lasting impact on the game.”
The true measure of the Augusta National Women's Amateur won’t be known for a decade or two, and the first edition here wasn’t perfect. It was awkward to have 36 holes of qualifying at nearby Champions Retreat, then a practice day, then the final round at the home of the Masters. And it’s unfortunate that the scheduling has taken some of the spotlight away from the LPGA’s first major of the year. But Augusta National hosts world-class tournaments, and in the course of a single year they created a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the 72 invitees and every patron who visited the grounds.
“It’s a long time coming for women’s golf, and I think it’s going to put it on the national stage,” said Wake Forest assistant coach Ryan Potter. “I’m a father of two, so I sit here and think that they’re going to see this and they’re going to be inspired.
“I don’t know what it means, the magnitude of it, but I know that it’s big, and I know that it’s significant.”
On Saturday morning, Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez, Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa and Se Ri Pak participated in a first-tee ceremony that evoked the Big 3 era of Jack, Arnie and Gary. Anna Redding was tasked with following the legends 10 minutes later, and she was shaking so badly that she could barely take back the club. Even after a disappointing 76 in the final round, she cried while describing the immense pride with which she played.
“Since I had the invitation in my hands, I’ve been so excited for this day,” she said. “This has exceeded my expectations – by miles. There are so many people out here to support women’s golf, and that’s so special.”
As she spoke, the final group was walking down the ninth fairway, with Kupcho one shot behind Fassi and dealing with a migraine headache so blinding that she couldn’t see the aiming line on her golf ball. She dropped a shot further behind on No. 10 when she waved at a 3-footer that snapped her streak of 101 holes without a three-putt.
“When I missed that putt, I couldn’t really be mad at myself,” Kupcho said. “I just told myself, ‘Hey, you’ve got it. Relax. There’s nothing you can do.’”
The blurred vision passed on the 11th hole, and from there Kupcho strung together the most clutch stretch of her ascendant career.
After two stress-free pars to start Amen Corner, she smoked a hybrid off a hanging lie to 6 feet for eagle on 13 to tie the lead.
She used the same club to set up another birdie on 15 to remain all square.
And then she pured a 7-iron that caught the slope and rolled inside 10 feet on the 16th hole, the birdie creating a two-shot swing and giving her a comfortable cushion to play the closing stretch.
“She’s not afraid to be great,” Fassi said, “and that’s what makes her great.”
By the time Kupcho hit her approach safely into the middle of the green on 18, it was all over ... save for another round of playful banter.
Throughout the final day, the No. 1-ranked Kupcho and No. 9 Fassi put their friendship and sportsmanship on full display. Fassi hugged her opponent when Kupcho knocked her tee shot on No. 6 to within kick-in range. Kupcho patted Fassi on the shoulder after a superb shot into the following hole. And they bumped fists after Kupcho found the green on the daunting 12th.
“I think both of us wanted to send the message that golf is about having friends,” Kupcho said, “and to be out there with her, we were cheering each other on, and that’s how golf is supposed to be.”
And so on the 18th green, after her ball wound up behind Kupcho’s marker, Fassi woofed, “I hope you go to school with this.”
“And I hope you’re a good teacher,” Kupcho replied.
Kupcho poured in the birdie putt for a 67 – the low round of the day, by two – to finish at 10-under 206, four shots clear of Fassi and a whopping eight ahead of third place, as Augusta National, once again, clearly identified the two players who performed the best.
“Battling on the back nine, it just says a ton about her grit and what she has inside her guts,” Potter said. “That was the stuff of greatness.”
Afterward, the stoic 21-year-old finally showed some emotion, punching the air with her fist before getting doused with water behind the green. She dried off in time to visit Butler Cabin and hoist the silver bowl during the trophy presentation on the tournament practice area, in front of her fellow competitors and seven rows of green-jacket-wearing members.
“I think we’re going to really start something great in women’s golf,” she said.
Two bogeys in Fassi’s last three holes spoiled what was an otherwise captivating duel between two of the most high-profile amateurs in the world. On a calm day at Augusta National, the final group attacked the soft greens and combined to make nine birdies and an eagle, fulfilling Fassi’s stated desire on the first tee to “put on a show for the people.”
For the national television audience at home, for the thousands of fans who waited outside the gates at 6:45 a.m. and left the club buzzing by late afternoon, it was exactly the auspicious introduction that Kupcho and Fassi envisioned.
“That’s what women’s golf should look like every Sunday on the last group,” Fassi said. “I know that’s the way I want it to be for the rest of my life.”