AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The charge on the back nine at Augusta National was among the best, this one by a woman.
NCAA champion Jennifer Kupcho, trailing by two shots and coping with remnants of a migraine Saturday, hit a hybrid to 6 feet on the par-5 13th for an eagle and finished with three birdies on the last four holes to become the first woman to win at the home of the Masters.
The Wake Forest senior closed with a 5-under 67 for a four-shot victory over Maria Fassi in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
“You’re now part of the history at Augusta National,” club chairman Fred Ridley told her in Butler Cabin, where Masters champions receive their green jacket.
Kupcho hit the opening tee shot on Wednesday at Champions Retreat, where the opening two rounds were played. More importantly, she hit the final shot with a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole at Augusta National to cap off a big week for her and for women’s golf.
The club didn’t have a female member until 2012, and now there are six. Ridley announced last year the creation of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur to provide a spark for women’s golf.
“I think we’re going to really start something great in women’s golf,” Kupcho said at the trophy presentation.
It featured all the heritage of Augusta National, including honorary tee shots by Nancy Lopez, Lorena Ochoa, Se Ri Pak and Annika Sorenstam. The crowd was larger than any of the 30 players who made the cut had ever experienced.
Kupcho did her part with a bold finish at perhaps the most iconic venue in golf.
“Just to play here at Augusta and have that kind of treatment, I think the woman’s game is really going to come out stronger,” she said, adding later that “there’s no bigger stage than this for amateur golf.”
Kupcho, the No. 1 player in the women’s amateur ranking, finished at 10-under 206 and won a silver bowl as the trophy, along with a piece of crystal — another Masters tradition — for making the only eagle of the tournament.
Sorenstam and Lopez say they had to fight tears when they walked to the first tee and soaked up the reality of a tournament for women at Augusta National. The crowd featured more women than typically seen during the Masters, especially young girls with their parents. Sorenstam and her daughter walked with the final group.
The golf was superb, at least at the top of the leaderboard.
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Only six women finished under par, and no one challenged Kupcho or Fassi, a senior at Arkansas from Mexico. Both sent a message of their own long before the tournament by earning LPGA Tour cards last year and deferring until after they finished college.
Fassi, who started one shot behind, took her first lead with a pitch over the mounds to 2 feet for birdie on the par-5 eighth. Kupcho had reason to believe she was in trouble when a migraine surfaced, causing vision so blurry she couldn’t see the line she marks on her ball while putting. She three-putted the 10th to fall two behind, and sat on a bench at the 11th tee to gather herself.
“It started to go away, and I was able to see,” she said. “I knew I was going to be able to do it.”
She learned in the practice round on the 13th fairway that even with the ball above her feet on the severely sloped fairway, the shot tends to go straight. From 211 yards with a 3-hybrid, she took dead aim and the shot settled 6 feet above the hole for eagle.
“Probably one of the best shots I’ve ever hit,” she said.
Fassi answered with a 10-foot birdie putt to regain the lead, and Kupcho decided to aim her 3-hybrid to the bunker right of the green on the par-5 15th. Instead, it came out with a sharp draw, with enough distance to roll by the pin just over the back, setting up a birdie.
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“She’s not afraid to be great, and that’s what makes her great,” Fassi said.
Tied again, she delivered the winner with a 7-iron on the par-3 16th that caught the ridge and fed down to the hole. Fassi’s tee shot stayed on the top shelf, leading to a three-putt that put the tournament in Kupcho’s hands.
“It’s amazing what we were able to have out here today,” Fassi said. “The ending wasn’t what I would have liked. She was hitting great shots. I did all I could. She played a great game and I’m really proud of her.”
Along the way, their friendship and sportsmanship was on full display. Fassi hugged her when Kupcho hit 6-iron to 2 feet on No. 6 for birdie. Kupcho patted her friend’s shoulder when Fassi answered with a shot that rolled back to a foot for birdie on the next hole.
That’s what Kupcho hopes young people took out of the moment, as much as women playing at Augusta.
“I think both of us 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,” Kupcho said. “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.”