Ladies First

Since the first Masters Tournament in 1934, Augusta National Golf Club leaders have been known for their golf innovations.

Over-under scoring. Affordable concessions. The Drive, Chip & Putt competition. Those are just a few of the myriad ways Augusta National officials have made an impact on the golf world.

During the tenure of Chairman Billy Payne, the improvements continued. In 2012, the club admitted its first female members, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore. Six years later, Augusta National and Masters Chairman Fred Ridley announced another first that would grab the world’s attention. On April 4, 2018, Ridley announced the creation of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship. The 54-hole tournament would be played at two sites, Champions Retreat Golf Club and Augusta National.

“Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts left behind a legacy of always trying to contribute meaningfully to the game of golf,” Ridley said at a news conference. “The Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship embodies that principle, and we believe this event will have a significant and lasting impact on the future of the women’s game. Our hope and expectation is that this event will further energize those who already love the sport and inspire others through the dream of competing at Augusta National.”

The 54-hole, stroke play tournament would feature an international field of 72 players. Invitees would be determined by awarding winners of other recognized championships and using the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking.

In 2019, the first two rounds took  place at Champions Retreat, located 14 miles from Augusta National. After a cut to the lowest 30 scorers, the final round would take place on the Saturday before the Masters Tournament.

The champion received an invitation to the next five Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championships (if she remained an amateur), the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open, the 2019 Women’s British Open, and any USGA, R&A and PGA of America amateur championships for which she is eligible for one year.

The Augusta National Women’s Amateur stirred interest from the start. The tournament attracted five presenting sponsors: AT&T, Bank of America, IBM, Mercedes-Benz and Rolex. Also, NBC Sports struck a deal to broadcast live the final three hours of the final round.

The tournament attracted many of the top female amateurs, including five of the world’s top 10 and 40 of the 50, including world No. 1 amateur Jennifer Kupcho, the reigning NCAA champion from Wake Forest who already had qualified for the LPGA by finishing second in the tour’s 2018 qualifying series. She deferred her professional playing time until the summer of 2019, while she remained focused on helping the Demon Deacons attempt to win a national championship; they eventually lost to Duke in sudden death in the NCAA Championship match.

Kupcho entered the Augusta National Women’s Amateur as one of the hottest players in the field, with wins in her two collegiate tournaments leading into the amateur event.

“It’s great to be here for the first-ever Augusta National Women’s Amateur,” Kupcho said before the tournament. “It’s crazy that they are actually letting us play the course. It will be pretty exciting to play this week and it’s been a great experience thus far, just with the kind of treatment we have received and everything.

“I think it would be really cool to win the first one ever. Obviously, that’s the goal. That’s the goal of everyone in the field. You can’t play defense against the rest of the field. I’ve just got to focus one shot at a time. You can’t go into it just ‘expecting’ to win.”

Kupcho received the honor of hitting the first tee shot in the tournament’s history. She went on to hit all 18 greens in regulation en route to a bogey-free, 4-under-par 68. She called the round “perfect.”

“I think this is the first time ever when I had no bogeys and hit 18 greens together. So probably the first perfect round I’ve played,” Kupcho said after her round.

Kupcho was tied at the top with 16-year-old Zoe Campos, one of the committee’s final six invitees. Campos recorded six birdies against two bogeys. Kaleigh Telfer of South Africa birdied her final hole of the day for solo third at 69.

In the second round, players on the bubble scrambled to make the cut. Telfer slid backwards with 78, making the cut on the number at 3-over. Russia’s Sofia Anokhina was the story of the day. Tied for 47th place after an opening 77, Anokhina rallied with a 50-foot eagle putt at No. 7. She entered the final hole needing a birdie. After rolling a six-foot putt, Anokhina learned she made an 11-player sudden-death playoff for one of the final 10 spots in the final round. A par on the first extra hole secured her spot.

In the meantime, Kupcho remained steady at the top of the leaderboard. Starting at No. 10, she remained bogey-free until posting bogeys at Nos. 5 and 8. She finished with 71 for a one-shot lead at 5-under-par 139. While Kupcho stumbled late, Mexico’s Maria Fassi made a late charge with birdies on two of the final holes. With her second consecutive 70, Fassi found herself in the final pairing for the final round.

Sierra Brooks and Kaitlyn Papp were tied for third at 141, along with Pimnipa Panthong of Thailand.

The tournament shifted to Augusta National for a Friday practice round in which everyone in the field was invited to participate. On Saturday morning, more history was made as LPGA Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez, Lorena Ochoa, Se Ri Pak and Annika Sorenstam all hit ceremonial tee shots off the No. 1 tee.

“Augusta National has always done it right,” Lopez said to The Augusta Chronicle’s Doug Stutsman. “They want to grow golf, and the way you grow golf is with amateur golf. I was always a goal setter and now young ladies anywhere, they can set the goal to play at Augusta National.” 

Fassi and Kupcho, who battled a migraine which led to blurry vision during the first holes, settled in for a final-round showdown. Fassi took the lead with a birdie at the par-5 eighth hole. She extended her lead to two when Kupcho missed a short downhill par attempt at No. 10.

The fireworks then began on the iconic back nine. Kupcho drilled a 211-yard second shot to the green at No. 13, setting up an eagle to tie Fassi, who retook the lead on the next hole. Kupcho responded by nearly making another eagle at the par-5 15th, her birdie tying Fassi with three holes to play.

At No. 16, the tournament turned for Kupcho. She fired a 7-iron to 8 feet for birdie, while Fassi recorded a bogey. Holding a two-shot lead entering the final hole, Kupcho finished with a 25-foot birdie putt while Fassi made another bogey. With her final-round 67, Kupcho finished at 10-under-par 206, while Fassi finished in solo second at 210.

“It’s always a great feeling to win,” said Kupcho. “But I think to win at Augusta National, 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.”

—-

Photos provided by The Augusta Chronicle

Article appears in the November 2020 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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