Taming the Boys Club

The following appears in the June 2020 ‘Golf and Gambling” issue

of Mile High Sports Magazine 

When Jennifer Kupcho’s putt fell in the cup at the 18th green of Augusta National Golf Club, she let loose a subtle, but firm, fist pump. It’s a gesture that has become a common sight amongst golfers.

At Augusta, it will forever live among the great celebrations to have taken place at golf’s holiest of grounds. Tiger Woods let loose a ferocious fist pump before hugging his father following his first Masters victory in 1997. Over two decades later, he extended both arms in the air and this time as a father, he was the one pulling his kids close following his fifth – and perhaps most impressive Masters victory.

Phil Mickelson’s leap at that same 18th green on the hole known as Holly. Jack Nicklaus’ remarkable run on the second nine in 1986. It feels as if every year, Augusta National provides undeniable drama and an historic image that is sure to be seen generations later.

Kupcho’s fist pump was no different, but make no mistake, in a way it was a more impactful image than anything ever witnessed on the grounds.

For decades, Augusta National was the adult version of a 10-year-boy’s tree house. Sacred to those who were able to enter and with one understood rule that long defined its social standing.

No girls allowed.

Augusta National was famous for being an “old boys ‘club” and was closed off to female members until 2012. Seven years later, history was made, as the first organized women’s tournament took place at Augusta with the first Augusta National Women’s Amateur. The winner was Kupcho, a name that is no stranger to the Colorado golf community.

Now, her name is forever etched in Augusta history along with Woods, Nicklaus, Palmer, Ballesteros.

What’s most remarkable is Kupcho’s victory almost didn’t happen because she almost passed on the opportunity to play in the tournament.

Almost.

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Kupcho graduated from Jefferson Academy High School in 2015 with two state championships to her name. She first claimed gold at the Country Club of Colorado, a Pete Dye course near the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.

The next spring she was the only player to shoot under par at River Valley Ranch and ended the tournament at 5-under, 10 strokes ahead of Cheyenne Mountain’s Kylee Sullivan who finished second.

Wake Forrest was the next step in her journey. Her swing coach Ed Oldham was methodical in how he picked goals for her to attack. As she got better, he turned his focus to a bigger world.

“I remember him saying to me at a young age, ‘You’re the best in Colorado; now let’s get to the best in the country,” Kupcho recently told CHSAANow.com.

That had to happen at the college level. Although she competed nationally in junior golf, her direct competition was often against girls in Colorado, especially when competing for her high school team.

Playing for the Demon Deacons was a different story. She was now at a major conference, competing in high-level tournaments. And there were times that it didn’t go her way. As a sophomore, she found herself in the mix for the individual NCAA championship, but disaster struck on the 17th hole.

Two shots ahead, her approach shot to the 17th green came up short and trickled into the water. She fell behind by a shot and couldn’t make a birdie on the 18th hole to pull even with Arizona State’s Monica Vaughn.

“I’ve learned so much through that; it was such a heartbreak,” Kupcho said. “It also helped me to realize that golf is a game that you never know what’s going to happen and you just have to accept it for how it is.”

One thing was for certain after that day: Kupcho’s star was on the rise. She would become the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world and claimed the NCAA championship in 2018. But that spring, the announcement of the formation of the ANWA suggested that Kupcho was a shoo-in for the event.

In November of that year, she went through the LPGA Qualifying Tournament and secured her tour card but opted to defer her professional career until she was finished with college.

At the time, that was what was important to her. She wanted to finish her college career and be there for her teammates. She had gotten the chance to play Augusta with her college team so the mystical appeal of playing the course was no longer there. After looking at her college schedule for the spring of 2019, she called the tournament director at Augusta and declined the invitation.

“She had to make sure she was managing her time well,” Wake Forrest coach Kim Lewellen said. “She wanted to make sure that she fulfilled her commitment to Wake Forrest, which I appreciated, and play those college events to make sure she’s prepared for (the ACC) conference (tournament) and NCAAs.”

It was a tough decision, but one that was made easier by the fact that she had gotten to play the course. Winning an individual tournament like that would be quite the accomplishment, but she was committed to a team for the spring of 2019.

“The reason I’m going back to school is to play for my college team and the focus on that,” she said. “So I really wasn’t planning on playing in it.”

An unexpected cancellation of an event opened Kupcho’s schedule up a bit. Playing in the ANWA wasn’t going to be the drain on her that she initially thought it would when the invitation first came her way.

“I called the tournament director up and asked to be in the field and I told me I still had a spot,” she said. “That’s when I found out I was actually going play and then I was really excited for that.”

Having the world’s top-ranked amateur in the field was a big boost for the tournament’s already high profile.

Play began at the Champions Retreat Golf Club in nearby Evans. Kupcho fired an impressive 4-under-par 68 on the first day. She followed it up with a 71, putting her 5-under for the tournament, one stroke ahead of Arkasnas’ Maria Fassi.

The final round was to be a head-to-head showdown at Augusta between the top two players on the leaderboard. Fassi and Kupcho were going to put their talents on display at the site of the Masters.

Luckily for Kupcho, she had already played the course, so nerves weren’t a factor when driving down Magnolia Lane to the clubhouse.

“It helped to have already played the course,” Kupcho said. When we got there, we got one practice round and that was it. When I was there, I wasn’t awestruck. I had already played it. So, I could really focus on how I am going to play each hole. And I think that really played to my advantage.”

Kupcho made just one birdie on the first nine while Fassi played them at 3-under to take a one-shot lead at the turn. But what’s true at the Masters turned out to be true at the AWNA.

The tournament doesn’t start until the second nine on the final day.

Kupcho bogeyed No. 10 to fall two behind, but on the 13th hole, Azalea, she made an eagle which started an incredible run. In all, she played the final six holes 5-under to get a four-shot victory in arguably the most historic women’s golf tournament ever.

Perhaps even more impressive is that she never let the impact of what she was doing overwhelm her.

“I don’t think it ever hit me in the middle of the round,” Kupcho said. “Even to this day, I don’t understand why this is such a big deal.”

To her it was just a regular golf tournament. But on a large-scale, this was an event that could play a pivotal role in advancing the game of women’s golf.

“The [number] of young ladies that wrote in – the girl junior golfers that wrote in – after Jen won, about how much now they want to play and how interested they are in the game, [was incredible],” Lewellen said. “And then just to see the energy after that win for junior golf, or women’s golf, or girls golf, the event just put women’s golf back on the map to be honest with you.”

And to a national audience, it put Westminster’s Kupcho on the map. She’s now a bona fide professional on the LPGA Tour. Though she’s waiting for the season to restart there is little doubt that she will continue to propel her career forward as long as that’s her goal.

“She will work hard to, to make her goals happen and if she wants something she’s going to go after and get it,” Lewellen said. “I see her doing that throughout her career, whether it lasts in golf for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, or she ends up deciding to do something else or have a family. I could see her being successful with whatever she does.”

She has the evidence to back it up. She’s a two-time Colorado high school state champion, an NCAA national champion and an Augusta National amateur champion.

She’s been the best in the state and the best in the country. She can certainly be the best in the world.

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