Jennifer Kupcho returns from freak concussion as Wake Forest fights to adjust dropped ranking

Wake Forest's Jennifer Kupcho Brian Westerholt/Sports On Film

Jennifer Kupcho returns from freak concussion as Wake Forest fights to adjust dropped ranking

Women

Jennifer Kupcho returns from freak concussion as Wake Forest fights to adjust dropped ranking

When Jennifer Kupcho returns to competition Friday at the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate, she will do so with a mix of questions and answers. But at least this outing is almost guaranteed to be less harrowing than her last tournament.

The Wake Forest sophomore, one of the country’s top players and a contender for the ANNIKA Award Presented by 3M, put mystery and concern into the air when she opened her spring season Feb. 12 at the Northrop Grumman Regional Challenge in 4-over 75 and promptly withdrew.

Was she hurt? Could it be a long-term injury? Playing as an individual, could she have simply dropped out after a poor round to protect her ranking?

In fact, that Sunday at Palos Verdes Golf Club in California produced one of the more bizarre accidents in recent college golf lore. Or as Mike Kupcho, Jennifer’s father, put it…

“This really was a freak deal,” Kupcho said. “What are the chances of that?”

Jennifer Kupcho, beginning her opening round on No. 10, actually got off to a pretty standard start that day as she stood 2 under after knocking her tee shot on Palos Verdes’ par-3 second green.

Players were being shuttled by cart from that tee to green in order to speed up play. Kupcho got on the back of the cart and was holding onto her push cart, which was trailing behind. A spectator stepped out of the way for the cart and then stepped back in after it had whizzed by. All was good. Except, he hadn’t accounted for Kupcho’s trailing push cart. The spectator got tangled with her cart, and Kupcho, hanging on tightly to her cart as this happened, got pulled forward from the transporting cart, got twisted around as she kept a grip on her own cart, landed on her back and had her head snap back and hit the concrete cart path.

A freak incident, for sure, in the game of golf. Luckily, it seemed, nothing much would come of it. Kupcho thought her ponytail may have cushioned her when her head snapped back, and although she was shaking as she walked toward the green after her tumble off the cart, the concern wasn’t high.

Then she went to putt. Facing a 30-footer down the hill for birdie, Kupcho left the effort 10 feet short. Unusual for a two-time winner in 2016-17 and the third-ranked player in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings, but it happens.

Her reaction as she waited to putt again started to show that matters were awry. Mike Kupcho and wife Janet were on hand that day, up at the green when their daughter fell. They only found out about the accident after overhearing a playing competitor mention it to Dianne Dailey, Wake Forest’s head coach. Now concerned parents, it didn’t take long for their nerves to really get on edge.

“(After that first putt), Jennifer went over to the side of the green, kind of knelt down and kind of had her head down like her head was hurting really bad,” Mike Kupcho said.

It didn’t get any better after that.

The sophomore proceeded to knock her remaining 10-footer roughly the same distance by.

“I was like, ‘OK, something’s wrong,’ ” Jennifer Kupcho said.

Kupcho would four-putt the hole, thus commencing a zany remainder of the day. She would play the six holes from the accident on in 6 over. Strange enough for a player of her caliber, but especially bizarre was how it went down.

Jennifer Kupcho of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons follows through on a tee shot during first round action at the Ruth's Chris Tar Heel Invitational on October 14, 2016 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Brian Westerholt/Sports On Film)

Jennifer Kupcho (Brian Westerholt/Sports On Film)

The four-putt on No. 2 was followed by another four-jack at No. 7, leading to a bogey after she found the par-5 green in two. At the par-4 sixth, Kupcho stuffed her approach shot to 3 feet, only to miss the hole completely on the putt.

Facing a greenside bunker shot with a clump of sand behind the ball at the par-3 fourth, Kupcho needed to take a mighty whack to get on the green. Instead, she barely swung and the ball advanced a couple of feet.

“It’s like no shot we’ve ever seen her do,” Janet Kupcho said.

Jennifer Kupcho told her mother at dinner that night that “my mind was doing weird things” on that shot. In essence, it was impossible to hide that something was amiss, as the barrage of head-scratching mistakes were a direct result of Kupcho’s compromised mind not allowing her to properly concentrate. Dailey had kept an eye on her passionate and stubborn player after Kupcho insisted on No. 1 green that she was fine.

The coach had an on-site trainer check Kupcho out on the fifth, and the sophomore passed a concussion test. After two pars closed out her 75, Kupcho underwent another test post-round and passed again. But loud music blaring during a dinner out with her parents that evening helped trigger significant headaches. She was also experiencing back stiffness.

Kupcho iced her back and took some ibuprofen for the head pain and felt somewhat better the next morning. But she was tested for a concussion again, and this time, she knew she was doomed.

“I could tell during the middle of the test, crap, I can’t remember this stuff,” Kupcho said.

Kupcho, of Littleton, Colo., ultimately failed balance and word memorization portions of the test. She had a concussion. As Kupcho failed the test, under the NCAA’s Concussion Safety Protocol, she was not allowed to compete, forcing her to withdraw.

That did not sit well, of course, especially for a player like Kupcho. This is a golfer who Dailey has repeatedly praised for her toughness. At last summer’s Colorado Women’s Golf Association Stroke Play Championship, Kupcho was suffering from migraines so fierce on Day 1 that she had trouble seeing. She trusted her father, her former high school golf coach and caddie that day, to act as her eyes and line her up on shots. She somehow shot 1-under 71. A day later, feeling better, Kupcho fired a 65 and eventually won the tournament by 19 shots.

So when she was told in California she had to withdraw, Kupcho started crying and insisted she was ready to play.

“She was in denial,” Janet Kupcho said.

There was no way to argue her way out of this one, though. Jennifer Kupcho would calm down and watch the action unfold as teammates Erica Herr and Sierra Sims finished their tournaments (all three played as individuals, as Wake Forest decided not to compete as a team that week in order to ease some players back from injury).

Per the NCAA’s Concussion Safety Protocol, when Kupcho returned to campus she could not practice, play, attend class or study for extended periods. She got back to Wake Forest on Wednesday, Feb. 15, and would get treatment from team doctors. After more failed concussion tests, Kupcho came close enough to baseline that Friday to ease back into practice. She hit balls for approximately 20 minutes each of the following two days. Kupcho had stopped feeling her concussion symptoms – headaches and inability to concentrate – and would be fully cleared after passing a concussion test on Monday, Feb. 20.

She’s back to full strength and in the team’s lineup at the spring-opening Darius Rucker at Long Cove Club in Hilton Head, S.C. So all’s good, right?

Well, not exactly. Kupcho’s health scare has thankfully passed by, but other issues loom.

The sophomore’s Golfstat ranking plummeted from No. 1 to No. 37 because of her withdrawal, as Kupcho took a loss to the entire field in that rankings system. (The Golfweek/Sagarin ranking system ignores withdrawals because the reason for early departure is often difficult to know. Kupcho’s Golfweek/Sagarin ranking was therefore unaffected by this WD, and she currently sits No. 3.)

Steven Kupcho, Jennifer’s older brother and a professional golfer and part-time caddie master at Desert Forest Golf Club in Carefree, Ariz., played college golf at Northern Colorado. Over winter break in the his junior 2013-14 season, Kupcho broke his right wrist playing basketball. He tried to rush back to action and had to withdraw during the final round of the Border Olympics in March as his wrist swelled up and he hoped to avoid long-term consequences. He learned that day how a withdrawal would mean a loss to the whole field.

So he knew exactly what would happen if his younger sister had to withdraw, and by phone he let their mother know about the potential rankings consequences the day of Jennifer’s accident, hoping it would prompt some action if she indeed had to sit out.

“When it’s something that’s such a farce, you hate to see (Jennifer) get crushed in the rankings like that because of something that was really out of her control,” Steven Kupcho said.

The older brother’s concerns have been heeded. The Wake Forest coaches have gone about appealing Kupcho’s ranking drop to the NCAA. Dailey nor Wake Forest wished to get into specifics, but there’s an appeals process ongoing to restore Kupcho’s ranking.

The NCAA noted that such an appeal would generally work through the NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Committee. The appeal is in progress, with the idea behind the action being that because this was a forced withdrawal, Kupcho’s loss to the entire field should be adjusted and her ranking should shoot back up.

“It would be good to get her her ranking back because it fell through no fault of her own,” Dailey said.

The head coach is confident Kupcho will keep firing. Whatever the outcome of the appeal, Dailey is mainly enthused that her star player is back to full health.

Without a concussion protocol in place, it may have been a lot different.

“It worked perfectly for her,” Dailey said. “If we’d gone with Jennifer’s gut instincts, it may have been detrimental to her because she began to get more symptomatic. It was great to have her sit out (for that reason).”

Kupcho herself isn’t really bothered much by the ranking drop. In fact, the more pressing issue was keeping her reputation intact.

The sophomore had never before withdrawn from a golf tournament in her life, and she didn’t want it to be painted as if she bowed out early in California because she wasn’t playing well.

“She’s grown up playing against these kids that would shoot 75 and withdraw,” Steven Kupcho said. “Her comment to me was, ‘That’s not me.’ ”

Not everybody has her brother’s sensibilities, though. The news of Kupcho’s concussion and forced withdrawal did travel but didn’t reach everyone’s attention. Kupcho said she heard murmurs that some thought she’d withdrawn to protect her ranking.

She’s No. 1 and she shot 75. She failed the concussion test because she could and she didn’t want to finish the tournament.

Well, the forced withdrawal disproves that. But for good measure, the sophomore recalls a previous tournament experience in response to any doubters.

“The last tournament of the fall, I shot 73 the first day and came back shot super low the second and third day and won the tournament,” said Kupcho, referring to last October’s Landfall Tradition, where she closed 66-68 to win. “Hearing people say that, well you can bounce back from a 75.”

So the ranking quibble still needs to be resolved, but at least Kupcho’s health and integrity are as strong as ever.

There’s no fear her motivation will drop whether the appeal is won or lost, and with Wake Forest currently at No. 10, she could be leading one of the country’s most dangerous teams come postseason time.

But there is still one more thing to work out. How does Kupcho feel about carts after what happened?

There have been no lingering effects physically from her concussion (the first one she’s ever suffered), but there has been at least a little mental tic.

Two days after her fall, Kupcho was heading down to the range with Herr as the injured sophomore prepared to watch final-round action at the Northrop Grumman.

The pair were riding in a cart and almost at the range when Kupcho’s head started to feel like it was spinning and she was feeling uncomfortable as she sat a bit on the edge of the cart. Herr put her arm around Kupcho just to make sure she was held in.

“When I got out, I was like, ‘OK, I’m not getting on a cart again today,’ ” Kupcho said, with a laugh.

Indeed, she didn’t. And as for whether her fall in California will play into her future decisions about riding in carts, it’s clear she’s not taking any chances.

“I probably will never get on a shuttle unless I can strap my cart onto a shuttle and get in the cart and ride without having to hold on to it,” Kupcho said.

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