World No. 1 Jennifer Kupcho initially turned down Augusta National. Her Wake Forest team had a two-day event scheduled in Georgia, and the NCAA champ felt it was unfair to add a non-college event to her docket.
“I think originally my brother was like ‘Why wouldn’t you want to play at Augusta? Seriously? Are you insane?’ ” said Kupcho of older brother Steven, a touring pro who surely echoed the thoughts of many.
But Kupcho, who earned her LPGA card at Q-Series last fall and chose to defer to finish out her senior year at Wake, was thinking long-term too. When she finally gets to the LPGA this spring, Kupcho didn’t want to be completely worn out.
Then the two-day college event got canceled. Kupcho told the folks at Augusta that she’d changed her mind. She wanted in.
Three days later, Kupcho got invited to the ANA Inspiration.
Another tough decision ensued as the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur and ANA Inspiration are both held the first week in April.
It’s not easy choosing between a longtime dream (an LPGA major) and what seemed the impossible dream (women competing at Augusta National).
Kupcho decided to stick with the ANWA (she couldn’t possibly tell Augusta no twice), but four players ranked inside the top 11 chose the desert over Augusta green.
Sweden’s Frida Kinhult, a freshman at Florida State, leads the way as the No. 2-ranked amateur in the world. She’s joined by the ultra-talented UCLA sophomore Patty Tavatanakit (No. 3), who tied for fifth at last year’s U.S. Women’s Open, Stanford’s Albane Valenzuela (6th) and 17-year-old American Rachel Heck (11th).
The U.S. Women’s Amateur champion gets an invite to the ANA too, but 2018 champ Kristen Gillman makes her debut as an LPGA professional this week in Australia at the Vic Open.
The final spot will be given to the winner of the ANA Junior Inspiration, a 54-hole AJGA invitational that takes place the weekend prior to the ANA Inspiration.
ANA tournament director Chris Garrett said the LPGA allows up to six amateur invitations and had the ANWA not conflicted, they’d likely have the full six.
“But we felt like we got the right number of the players,” he said, “and the right quality of players, and that’s we are focused on.”
At last year’s ANA, Valenzuela, a 2016 Olympian, led a foursome of amateurs who made the cut with a 36-hole score of 6-under 138, besting the record of 141 set by Michelle Wie (2004) and Angela Park (2006). The Swiss standout was tied for eighth after two rounds.
Heck, a Stanford commit, made the winning putt at last year’s Junior Ryder Cup in Paris. She has made the cut in her two previous major starts (2017 U.S. Women’s Open and ’18 Evian).
“It was a difficult choice,” said Heck, “but I knew right away I that could not turn (the ANA) down. My past couple experiences in majors have been incredible.”
Not to mention the 2017 Solheim Cup, where Angel Yin and Lizette Salas invited Heck to dinner and the team room on Saturday night. Heck has learned to soak up every second she has among LPGA stars.
Amazingly, it’s now easier to get an invite to Augusta than the ANA, so plenty more opportunities should follow for a player of her caliber.
“I am hoping that in the upcoming years I’ll hopefully have the chance to play (Augusta),” said Heck.
Yealimi Noh, one of the hottest players in 2018, turned down both opportunities, choosing instead to make her professional debut earlier this month in the Taiwan Women’s Open. Noh finished 53rd.
The high school senior gave up starts in four LPGA majors as well as the ANWA to turn professional.
“It would’ve been amazing to play in the Augusta event and all those other majors,” said Noh, “but I’m really happy with the decisions I’ve made so far.”
Noh plans to try and Monday qualify for LPGA events in 2019 and sign up for Q-School in the summer. Her management and sponsorship opportunities will be announced in the coming days.
“For me, I believe that I’ve accomplished everything that I can junior-wise and also amateur-wise as a golfer,” said Noh, winner of the 2018 U.S. Girls’ Junior. “I think I’ve done my best.” Gwk