A dream duel at Augusta National: Jennifer Kupcho outlasts Maria Fassi to win – USA TODAY

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Kupcho wins the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Golfweek, USA TODAY NETWORK

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Before Jennifer Kupcho struck the first tee shot at the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur, she was asked where winning this tournament might rank among her accomplishments. Behind the NCAA championship, she said, rather shockingly.

Needless to say, that view changed as the week progressed. Where exactly is difficult to say. It might have been when she walked onto the first tee Wednesday at Champions Retreat, utterly shocked by the seriousness of the occasion. History-making moments carry a certain gravitas.

Perhaps it was when she arrived on the first tee at Augusta National Saturday, or around Amen Corner when she struck that magnificent hybrid into the 13th.

Or maybe it was when a migraine set in midway through the round that left her partially blinded. The woman who fell off a shuttle at a college event two years ago and tried to carry on playing with a concussion wasn’t going to let this moment slip away.

“I think to win at Augusta National,” said Kupcho, “just to get to walk the fairways and walk up 18 with as many fans as there were, it’s an experience like none other.”

On a day when few knew what to expect, the action unfolded about as magically as anyone dared imagine. The No. 1-ranked Kupcho engaged in a back-nine duel with the explosive Maria Fassi that left the patrons of Augusta National utterly amazed.

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Eight of the 30 players broke par at Augusta National.

Kupcho played the final six holes in 5 under, matching the efforts of Jack Nicklaus here in 1986. She joins Ben Crenshaw, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Nicklaus as the only players to win both the NCAA individual championship and a tournament at Augusta National.

Her closing 5-under 67 put her at 10-under of the tournament, four shots ahead of Fassi. But that score isn’t at all indicative of how the day felt. It was part boxing match, with both players punching the air after gutsy shots, and part celebration.

Inspiring a new generation

When Kupcho hit one heavy into the par-3 sixth she quit following the ball. The joy-filled Fassi put her arm around Kupcho on the tee box and said, “Dude, it might go in. You’ve got to watch.”

It was like that all day, the soon-to-be LPGA pros trading fist bumps and hugs like two people who wanted nothing but the best for each other.

“I hope it encourages people to pick up a club and go play,” said Kupcho of their camaraderie.

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Growing up, the now 21-year-old Kupcho used to practice making putts to win a national championship. Little girls didn’t grow up dreaming of winning at Augusta.

Until now.

“I picked the wrong sport,” said Jenna Pehowski, a swimmer at South Carolina who applied for the chance to attend the event. Pehowski said IBM selected 30 college athletes from the University of South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Georgia and Emory to watch what many believe will be a turning point not only in golf, but women’s sports in general.

“I think today is a little wave of something big that’s going to come,” said Annika Sorenstam, who took part in a special first-tee ceremony and walked the course with daughter Ava. “And I’m not just talking girls golf. I’m talking golf. I’m talking women’s sports, and I really think the ripple effect will go further.”

The steady Kupcho hasn’t suffered from migraines since her freshman year of college, but one began to set in on the eighth hole. By the ninth green, she couldn’t see to line up her ball. In the fairway, she could see the ball “approximately.”

Much was made about the fact that Kupcho opted to go with the same club caddie she used two years ago at Augusta National for the final round. That decision became critical as she neared the turn visually impaired.

“I think on those holes when I couldn’t see,” she said, “I was able to lean on him and have him, trust him to tell me the yardage, tell me the up/down and to read the green. I mean, on nine green, I said, ‘I can’t see anything, so just tell me where to hit it.’ “

When the pain began to subside, fittingly around Amen Corner, Kupcho began to really dazzle.

Sportsmanship first

Fassi, who has a swing speed of 110 mph, can hit every par 5 at Augusta National with an iron in her hand. But not from the rough.

Kupcho never considered anything but going for it from 211 yards out on the par-5 13th. Fassi, with her ball sitting down on a downhill lie, felt she’d be “stupid” to do anything but lay up.

Kupcho poured in a 6-footer for eagle to square it against Fassi, who pounded a drive on the next hole and pumped up a gallery that had grown fully invested in two women most were meeting for the first time.

Lorena Ochoa walked briskly on the fringes of the gallery with her brother, Alejandro, blending in with the crowd. It was at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Mexico City that a 12-year-old Fassi became inspired to chase the dream of turning professional. She remembers when Ochoa high-fived her that week. The fact that the World Golf Hall of Famer had essentially switched places with her at Augusta National was nothing short of surreal.

Jennifer Kupcho of Wake Forest raises the Augusta National Women’s Amateur trophy after winning the inaugural event. (Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports)

The way Fassi begins every round with the sign of the cross and a kiss. The way she raises an arm to acknowledge the crowds as she approaches greens. The gracious way in which she treats people. It’s all just like Lorena.

Nancy Lopez might get a little credit too. Fassi was assigned to Lopez’s car during a New York City media tour for the ANWA and the pair spent a full day together. Fassi was at first embarrassed by the number of questions Arkansas coach Shauna Estes-Taylor peppered Lopez with – and even recorded to play back for the team. But on the way home she thanked her.

A key point from Lopez: “You are in the entertainment business. Never forget that. The reason people loved me was because I love people.”

Legions fell in love today.

After Kupcho capped off what’s bound to become one of the most memorable finishes in all of women’s golf with a cherry-on-top 20-foot birdie on the 18th hole, the pair shared a long embrace.

“I think that’s what women’s golf should look like every Sunday on the last group,” said Fassi. “It’s the players’ responsibility for it to be like that, and I know that’s the way I want to be for the rest of my life.”

It was a day unlike any other at Augusta National. The start of a new tradition that exceeded expectations – including those of the champion.

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