AUGUSTA, Ga. – The loudest roars at Augusta National Golf Club tend to come on the second nine in Sunday’s final round of the Masters.
For the first time in Augusta National’s storied history, the cheers echoed among the pines on the second nine on the Saturday before Masters week. And a woman, Jennifer Kupcho, was the target of the adulation as she won the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur (scores).
That fact normally would be enough of a lead for a final-round game story, but Saturday at Augusta National proved to be much more than Kupcho’s four-shot victory.
It was a day of celebration and emancipation.
Women’s golf got a much-needed boost from the most influential golf club in America. The world’s top female amateurs showed that they not only could play Augusta National but play it well. Kupcho, 21, a Wake Forest senior from Westminster, Colo., shot a 5-under 67 that included the only eagle-3 on the par-5 13th.
That was where the roars began as Kupcho pulled into a tie with playing competitor Maria Fassi, an Arkansas senior from Pachuca, Mexico, who started the day one stroke behind. Starting at the 13th, Kupcho made a back-nine charge reminiscent of another Wake Forest product, the late Arnold Palmer. Like Kupcho, Palmer also made a pivotal eagle at the 13th, in 1958 en route to his first of four green jackets. Kupcho pulled away from Fassi and the field with birdies on Nos. 15, 16 and 18. She finished at 10-under 206 after posting rounds of 68 and 71 earlier in the week at nearby Champions Retreat.
When Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley announced at last year’s Masters that Augusta National would host the final round of the inaugural ANWA, the club and Ridley received some criticism for the tournament’s conflict with the LPGA’s ANA Inspiration, which is the women’s first major championship of the year. The ANA traditionally invites some of the top amateurs. Also, the club was scrutinized for off-siting the first two rounds of the tournament and committing only to the final round, and making a cut from 72 players to only 30 at Augusta National.
Those questions were answered, not so much by Ridley or other club officials but by all the women who competed.
The competitiveness, the camaraderie and the genuine glee among the players as they walked the same fairways that have hosted generations of golf’s stars – Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods among them – overwhelmed any reproach by those who questioned Augusta National’s intentions.
“Coming out of it with Maria in the final group with me,” Kupcho said, “I think both of us kind of just wanted to send the message that golf is about having friends, and to be out there with her. We were cheering each other on, and that's kind of how golf is supposed to be. And to make it look fun; it is fun. So, to make it look that way for everyone watching, I hope it encourages people to pick up a club and go play.”
Augusta National certainly took its time in welcoming women into its membership – Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, and financier Darla Moore joined in August 2012 – but the club has nonetheless been at the forefront in creating amateur events that are geared toward growing the game worldwide.
It authored the first Asia-Pacific Amateur, in 2009, and the Latin America Amateur, in 2015. The club went a step further by extending to each champion a spot in the Masters.
In opening Augusta National to the women last week, the club continued to make strides in supporting the amateur game on golf’s biggest stage.
The course setup, at 6,365 yards, was considerably shorter than the 7,475 yards that the 2019 Masters field will find this week, but Kupcho and Fassi had no problems making the final round as interesting and compelling to the large fan base that followed the inaugural event.
Kupcho endured a migraine on the eighth green and couldn’t see the aiming line on her ball on the next two holes. She persevered until the migraine improved into merely a bad headache, making the victory even more spectacular.
Kupcho and Fassi earned LPGA cards at Q-School last fall, but both decided to defer tour membership until this summer. They wanted not only to play in the inaugural Augusta event but also their conference tournaments and the NCAAs.
“I think it definitely said something that the top two players were the two that decided not to turn [pro],” said Kupcho, addressing the widespread recognition of this event. “And I think that's really going to show something big in the women's game, so that it will be more accepted of the people that defer.”
The women yielded the stage to the professionals and their numerous storylines: Woods’ attempt to win a fifth green jacket; Jordan Spieth’s effort to exorcise the demons of the 12th and 15th holes; and Rory McIlroy’s bid for the career Grand Slam, among others.
Yet, the Augusta National Women’s Amateur now is firmly part of the fabric of Masters week, albeit a nine-day week.
“I think it exceeded my expectations,” Kupcho said. “Everything that they do for us here, this is the most organized tournament I've ever played in, and they make sure everything's OK, all the time. If you ever need anything, they will get it to you in a second. So just to play here at Augusta and have that kind of treatment, I think the women's game is really going to come out stronger.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli