STILLWATER, Okla. – Three-hundred-and-sixty-four days after seeing an NCAA individual title slip through her grasp, Jennifer Kupcho found herself with a firm grip on the trophy as she raised it into the air Monday at Karsten Creek.
And this time, she wasn’t letting go.
“I have been working so hard for this,” said Kupcho, still holding her hardware in the moments after she became Wake Forest’s first NCAA women’s individual champion.
Nearly a year ago, Kupcho led the NCAA Championship by two shots as she stood 127 yards out at Rich Harvest Farms’ par-4 17th hole. She hit what she called a “perfect” shot for her approach; only the result was punishing, her ball coming up short and wet. A triple bogey and closing par later, Kupcho found herself in tears as she finished a shot behind winner Monica Vaughn of Arizona State.
“What happened last year really affected her,” said Wake Forest assistant coach Ryan Potter. “… To come that close last year, I just think that sticks with you.”
Mike Kupcho remembers last year’s drive home from Chicago to Westminster, Colo. He and his wife, Janet, couldn’t help but think about their daughter, who was on a flight home the morning after the final round. Mike was set to caddie for Jennifer the next day in a 36-hole U.S. Women’s Open sectional qualifier in Brighton, Colo.
“We were worried how she would react out there,” Mike Kupcho said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I would’ve been a wreck.”
Deep down, Jennifer Kupcho was likely still grieving. But on the exterior, she didn’t show it. Kupcho opened her qualifier in 66, ended up winning by one shot and later that month tied for 21st at Trump National in Bedminster, N.J.
“I just tried to forget about it,” Kupcho said.
Potter, though, thought about it “every single day.” He still believes he shoulders some of the blame for the way Kupcho finished off her championship at Rich Harvest Farms. Kupcho admitted she let what happened on the 71st hole negatively affect her, and Potter thinks he could’ve done a better job as a coach of preventing that.
Failing to gather her emotions, Kupcho three-putted No. 17 and then blew her closing tee ball right and just into the hazard at the par-5 18th hole.
“If she gets that ball in the fairway she probably wins last year,” Potter said.
Potter knew Kupcho would face adversity again this week at Karsten Creek. He also was confident his player could handle it.
“The bigger the tournament, the bigger the stage, the better she plays,” Potter said.
Kupcho opened with a sparkling 7-under 65 Friday to tie the course record and held a share of the 54-hole lead with Alabama junior Cheyenne Knight. But after opening her final round with birdie, Kupcho went bogey, double bogey, bogey, at Nos 5-7, to fall three shots back. That’s when thoughts of 2017 started to trickle into her mind. With the help of Potter, she quickly shrugged them off.
“My assistant coach was in my ear saying, ‘There is going to be mistakes down the stretch, just keep fighting, just keep fighting,’” Kupcho said.
Said Potter: “The big thing with her is trying to get her back in that playing state so she can hit one good shot, make a birdie and then she’s off.”
Kupcho responded with a birdie at the par-3 11th. She added four more on the back side, including a 40-foot birdie bomb at the par-4 16th hole. And just like Potter said, her competitors made mistakes. Knight bogeyed three times and didn’t make a birdie on the back nine as she struggled to hit greens. Ohio State’s Jaclyn Lee, playing in the same group as Kupcho, played Nos. 15-17 in 4 over.
Yet Kupcho was unaware of where she stood on the individual leaderboard as she came down the stretch. She also didn’t know that she led by two shots with two holes to play, just like last year.
“I was just trying to play my own game, not focusing on everyone else and just seeing what I can do,” Kupcho said.
Added Mike Kupcho: “She was just super determined.”
After a perfect tee ball and following par at the difficult par-4 17th hole, Kupcho hit the par-5 18th green in two shots. Two putts later and she was finally a national champion – and on her parents’ 35th wedding anniversary, too.
“It’s just exciting to get to here after everything I’ve been through,” Kupcho said.
A freak accident that resulted in a concussion during her sophomore year. Two players leaving the team midseason last year. The heartbreak at Rich Harvest Farms.
Kupcho spent last summer working on the holes in her game — chipping, bunker play — to make sure she didn’t experience another letdown. She notched three wins during the regular season, including a second straight NCAA regional title. Her 70.6 scoring average edged the school record she sat last season by a hundredth of a shot. And her performance at Karsten Creek is one that she’ll never forget – and she won’t want to.
“It was incredibly telling about who she is as a player that she can go through the adversity of these struggles in what had to feel like Deja vu,” said Golf Channel analyst Paige Mackenzie.
Said Potter: “Redemption. She knew she could do it; I don’t think that was the issue. It was just holding the trophy.”
She’ll never have to let go of it, either.