Keeping Score

Fassi, Kupcho face post-grad test at Open

CHARLESTON, S.C. – Though it’s been eight weeks now, Maria Fassi rarely goes more than a few days without getting a reminder of the place she and Jennifer Kupcho find themselves in women’s golf.

“Honestly, it just doesn’t feel real yet,” said Fassi, the newly crowned NCAA women’s champion who makes her professional debut today at the U.S. Women’s Open.

“I hear from people that I haven’t heard from in a while. They’re like, ‘Hey, I saw you at Augusta. That was amazing.’ Or friends from school that I haven’t talked to in five or six years – ‘Hey, I was watching ‘The Tonight Show,’ and you were there.’ ”

Maria Fassi will make her professional debut today with a familiar face in her group.

All because of a Saturday afternoon at Augusta.

Not just any afternoon, of course. Women’s golf – the amateur variety – had come to the home of the Masters, with Fassi and Kupcho serving as centerpieces of the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

Kupcho prevailed, overcoming a migraine episode midway through her round to emerge four shots clear of Fassi. Crowds lined up a dozen deep at places along the back nine, and TV ratings were the highest for any women’s golf telecast since the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open.

And now they’ll get play something of an encore, paired together for the first two rounds at Country Club of Charleston (tee times). Both will be making their pro debuts, joined by NCAA runner-up Sierra Brooks.

“I could not have asked for a better pairing for my pro debut,” Fassi said.

Jennifer Kupcho

Said Kupcho: “I think everyone, all the world wanted to see Maria and I play together again.”

The U.S. Golf Association may be accused of a lot of things, but it knows a marketing opportunity when it sees one.

Women’s golf has been blessed in recent years with brilliant amateurs who fast-tracked their way to the pros – Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel, Lexi Thompson, Lydia Ko – but you might have to go back to Wie’s preteen days to find players as well known as Kupcho and Fassi for strictly their amateur play.

In fact, Kupcho and Fassi were the only two collegians who took advantage of a new LPGA option allowing them to defer membership earned via the Q Series until after the college season was complete.

It’s reasonable to think a few more might give that path some consideration next November. “The last few months have been amazing for me,” Fassi said.

A native of Mexico who starred at Arkansas, Fassi was the 2018 Annika Award winner as the top player in women’s college golf. She finished her college career with 10 wins, the last coming in a rain-shortened NCAAs on her home course. She leaves the amateur ranks at No. 2 in the world rankings.

No. 1 is Kupcho, who has held the ranking for the past 10 months. The Colorado native was the 2018 NCAA champion at Wake Forest, one year after a late triple bogey cost her the 2017 title.

So their portfolios never were in doubt. Nonetheless, their names might have been known only by avid followers of college or amateur golf unless they had been on their games in Augusta.

“We were just the right golfers at the right time, very fortunate that we were able to be out there,” Fassi said. “To play the way we did, to represent ourselves, it’s just been really exciting to see the impact and respect we’ve gotten from people.”

It wasn’t just the scores they posted at Augusta National – Kupcho’s 67 was the low round of the day, and Fassi shot her third straight 70 – but the fun they brought to that final pairing.

Fassi hugged her playing competitor when Kupcho knocked her tee shot to kick-in range at No. 6. Kupcho patted Fassi on the shoulder after a clutch shot one hole later. They bumped fists after Kupcho found the green at Augusta’s 12th.

“I think a lot of people think that we were just putting on an act,” Kupcho said, “and I think they’ll really see [this week] that that’s how Maria and I are, no matter how we’re playing.”

Folks noticed then, too. Kupcho and Fassi did a media blitz in the days after Augusta, bringing even more celebrity.

“To get the recognition that we got, it was really exciting to see everyone following women’s golf,” Kupcho said. “It was definitely very tiring, but a lot of fun.”

Said Fassi: “I don’t think I still know how big that was. It just keeps impressing me day after day.”

For her part, Kupcho remains amazed at how close she came to missing out. The ANWA wasn’t part of her original plans, as she planned to travel with her Wake Forest teammates to a college event elsewhere in Georgia.

Her older brother told her that she was “insane” for turning down Augusta National, and the quandary became moot when the college event was canceled.

“It is a little crazy to look back and know that I wasn’t even going to be in the event,” Kupcho said.

Fassi needed no prodding. Faced with invitations to Augusta and the LPGA’s ANA Inspiration – a choice faced by other top amateurs this year – she determined that she will spend plenty of springs in Rancho Mirage.

“It was definitely hard to say no to a major,” she said. “But it was kind of easy at the same time because it was the first time and only time that I was going to have the opportunity to compete at Augusta National.”

Now comes their first steps into their pro careers, with new lessons to absorb.

“I would say really pacing yourself,” Kupcho said. “You can get burned out going so many weeks in a row, and I think that’s probably going to be the biggest thing.”

They also can draw on advice from contemporaries who opted not to defer their LPGA cards. That includes former Alabama standouts Kristen Gillman and Lauren Stephenson.

“They’re great friends,” Kupcho said. “I’ve talked to them, and they’re helping Maria and I through it.”

This morning, they’ll take the professional leap together.

“It’s going to be just like we were in college,” Kupcho said. “I think it will actually really relax us and let us have a lot of fun.”

Said Fassi: “Not only do I know them, but I know we’re going to be playing great golf as well. It’s going to be fun to see them hit good shots, and hopefully I can make some good ones, too.”

Jeff Shain has been writing and podcasting about golf since 2000, including more than a dozen years at The Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel. Email: Twitter: @jeffshain

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