Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi, along with another 70 women from 25 countries on six continents, broke ground at the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur this week.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — A familiar development: a golfer, in peak form, feasting on Augusta National’s two back-nine par 5s to seize control of a tournament.
Something new: the golfer is a woman, and the tournament isn’t the Masters.
When she needed it most, Jennifer Kupcho summoned two of the best hybrid shots you’ll ever see, played her final six holes in five under and fired a 67 to win the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur by four shots.
Despite what the score might suggest, it was anything but a routine. A headache and a helluva effort from Maria Fassi made sure of that.
Kupcho, a Wake Forest senior and the top-ranked amateur in the world, trailed Fassi by one despite shooting one under on the front nine. She was struggling with a migraine and compromised vision when she missed a three-foot par putt on 10. “I just couldn’t see,” she said, adding that she struggled with migraines throughout her junior career but hadn’t really dealt with it since her freshman year at Wake. “It was blurry.”
That left a four-footer for bogey to avoid a four-putt. She sunk that to remain down by just two. Huge, especially because she knew her vision would, eventually, return. After her vision cleared by the 11th green, Kupcho trailed by that same two-shot deficit when she decided to go for the dangerous but gettable par-5 13th in two despite a hanging lie, 211 yards and a creek between her and the hole.
She pulled a 3-hybrid, made a fearless swing and produced a towering baby draw that plopped down to five feet. “One of the best shots I’ve ever hit in my life,” she said. (She doesn’t waste words.)
After Fassi missed a birdie effort, Kupcho poured her downhill, left-to-right eagle putt right in the center. Tie ballgame.
Fassi, an Arkansas junior and Mexico native whose family showered her with cries of venga, Maria!, responded with a birdie at 14 to get her nose in front again. But her next tee shot, on the par-5 15th, was a foul ball right and forced a layup. Kupcho, now seeing clearly and pressing her foot to the pedal, pulled that trusty 3-hybrid and aimed away from a tree, toward a greenside bunker right of the flag. The ball drew more than she anticipated and headed straight for the flag before stopping just over the back edge. A two-putt birdie to knot proceedings again as the pair headed to the par-3 16th. That hole proved decisive.
Kupcho played first and hit a towering 7-iron right where you need to: right of the flag, close to the apex of a certain Tiger Woods chip, and watched as it trickled down the slope to about eight feet. Fassi tried to do the same but bailed a bit right, leaving her ball at the very top of the slope and leaving maybe the fastest putt on a golf course known for them. She’d require three putts from where her ball ended up; Kupcho only needed one, and her second straight birdie produced a two-shot swing. Kupcho led by two heading to 17.
“That one was kind of in from the get-go,” Kupcho said. “I saw the putt, saw the line, and my caddie said, ‘that’s perfect.’ So, trust your caddie.”
The caddie she speaks of? An Augusta local. After having her father on the bag for the first two days, Kupcho was convinced during Friday’s practice round at Augusta that she’d be best served by going outside the family. Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s hard to argue with that decision.
For good measure, after both parred 17, Kupcho poured in a 20-footer for birdie at 18 to finish at 10-under 206.
Fassi bogeyed the finishing hole, but her third straight 70 and six under total still finished four shots clear of Yuka Saso and Yuka Yasuda, who tied for third at two under.
Next up for Kupcho: the LPGA Tour. Fassi won’t be far behind. Both players successfully earned their tour cards at November’s Q-Series event, and both opted to take advantage of a new option to defer their status in order to finish college.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to walk Augusta with anyone else,” Kupcho said.
Saturday’s round of golf can’t be categorized as anything but a smashing success—the two best players in the field, in the final pairing, engaged in a fiercely competitive but distinctly good-natured battle. Kupcho would stripe a tee shot down the center, then pick up her tee before the ball landed. Then Fassi would do the same, and pick up her tee before the ball reached its apex. A case-study in sportswomanship: after missing her par effort on the 18th hole from the same line Kupcho was about to putt from, Fassi whispered: “I hope you went to school on that one.” Kupcho responded: “I hope you were a good teacher.” Thirty seconds later, the birdie fell center-cut. A good teacher indeed.
It was that sort of day—a glittering display of woman’s golf at a place that ignored it for so very long.
Augusta National’s membership Rolodex is guarded with Fort Knoxian fervor, but we know the first women members—Condoleeza Rice, who mingled about on Saturday, and Darla Moore—weren’t admitted until 2012. That is remarkable even in the famously boys-club world of golf. There is also an ugly racial history. Clifford Roberts, one of the founders of the Masters, is thought to have once said, “As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.”
All that history tinged the self-congratulatory promotion of this event with a healthy dose of irony. The official Instagram page posted pictures of genuine pioneers: Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Sandra Day O’Connor. The intent here was to portray the participants as trailblazers, which they are. But the very reason they are trailblazers, the reason this event is so remarkable, is because of Augusta’s exclusive history. In that way, the significance of this day borders on paradoxical.
The way this was sold, you’d think this was the first women’s golf amateur tournament in history. Not even close. The U.S. Women’s Amateur dates to 1895, 24 years before women gained suffrage. Women have been navigating the world’s best golf courses—kicking ass on the world’s best golf courses—since well before the first World War. But legends like the four who participated in the first-tee ceremony on Saturday morning—Se-Ri Pak, Lorena Ochoa, Nancy Lopez and Annika Sorenstam—never competed on these hallowed grounds.
And then there’s the tournament itself, which wasn’t what you’d call inclusive. As far as access goes, this was far from an unabashed gate-opening. The format for this event, called the Augusta National Women’s Amateur even though less than 18% of the tournament’s rounds took place at Augusta National, was this: 70 women, representing 25 countries on six continents, competed in the first two rounds at the Champions Retreat course, a track 15 miles but also worlds away from Augusta. Then there was to be a 36-hole cut to trim the field to 30 players. Only these qualifiers would tee it up in Saturday’s final round at Augusta. After the second round, 11 players sat tied for 21st place. Because rules are rules, dammit, and lord forbid letting one extra woman play the round of a lifetime, there was an 11-for-10 playoff to determine who would advanc to golf’s promised land. (It should be noted that the Masters cut is the top 50 and ties). Seventeen-year-old Alessia Nobilio was the odd woman out.
All 70 women stuck around to play a practice round at Augusta on Friday, just a few days before Tiger and Phil and Rory and Jordan will do the same. That is very cool. Full stop. But unlike most practice rounds, they were only allowed to play multiple balls around the greens—that means one ball off of tees and one ball into greens. There was, after all, a bit of a time crunch: Augusta’s members held afternoon tee times. That’s a tradition—members play up until the Sunday preceding the Masters, and that tradition wasn’t about to be shuttered for this tournament.
Almost every positive aspect of this event was plagued with an equal, opposite and inescapable shadow. A women’s amateur event showcasing a wonderfully diverse field…after 80 years of gender homogeneity. A fervent media campaign to trumpet the societal meaning of this event…without the self-awareness to acknowledge what makes it meaningful in the first place. A practice round for all 70 participants…before member play in the afternoon.
The golf, however, was beyond reproach: the course was immaculate, the competition pure, the winning performance spectacular. Kupcho and Fassi and every other woman on the premises sent a clear message on Sunday. The women were ready. The women have been ready.