“It’s Going To Be A Much Bigger Deal Standing Over A Three-Foot Putt”…

Carlota Ciganda will compete against Jennifer Kupcho (Shown Teeing Off)

After months of inactivity, golfers compete at CoBank Colorado Women’s Open. Carlota Ciganda, the world’s 15th ranked player and local favorites Jennifer Kupcho and defending champion Becca Huffer headline the first professional athletic event in Colorado since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Anthony Cotton

It may sound strange for someone who not that long ago effectively smirked at almost a century of “a tradition unlike any other” and won the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur tournament, but Jennifer Kupcho says she recently found herself dealing with an abundance of nerves out on the golf course.

It wasn’t at an LPGA major championship, or even your basic, run-of-the-mill “Big Shopping/Furniture/Hardware Store Classic.” No it was a little get together at her home club, Superstition Mountain, in suburban Phoenix.

“We’ve got eight LPGA players who belong there, so in mid-February the members put together an event,” the Westminster native said on Tuesday. “All of the membership came and watched—there was some money on the line and with all of the people there it got kind of crazy and stressful.”

Typically, Kupcho, the 2018 NCAA champion, was nevertheless poised enough to finish second in the makeshift competition. On Wednesday, at the CoBank Colorado Women’s Open at Green Valley Ranch Golf Club, she’ll be playing for much bigger stakes—a $50,000 first-place check—but ironically, attendance at this event will be decidedly smaller. Because of the novel coronavirus, the general public won’t be allowed at the event; each player will be allowed a caddie and one spectator to accompany them during the three rounds of play. Competitors will go out in carts, to ensure they can return quickly to the clubhouse in case of inclement weather—but even then they won’t be allowed to congregate at the clubhouse or locker room, they have to adjourn to their cars and wait for play to resume. At that point, because of the sheer numbers, they won’t be allowed to warm up, instead picking up right where they left off.

While the COVID-19-mandated precautions are certainly necessary, it does place something of a buyer on what should be a spectacular event, the first professional contest to take place in Colorado since the shutdown began months ago.

“It’s, without question, the best field we’ve ever had,” said Kevin Laura, the CEO of the Colorado Open Golf Foundation. “I would expect that all our scoring records are going to fall.”

Kupcho isn’t even the highest-ranked player competing—that honor belongs to Carlota Ciganda of Spain, a two-time LPGA winner and the No. 15 ranked player in the world. The last time Ciganda played in Colorado was 2013, when she went 3-0-0 for the victorious European Solheim Cup team at Colorado Golf Club in Parker.

Also on hand are defending champion and another local favorite, Becca Huffer, and Vicky Hurst, who has won more than $1.5 million on tour prior to her 30th birthday. Among the 35 amateur players competing are local stars Emma Bryant, Charlotte Hillary and Hailey Schalk.

Because the LPGA and minor-league Symetra Tour have been shuttered due the pandemic, those players haven’t been seeing much tournament action. That’s not the case with Sophia Popov; a 27-year-old who holds dual citizenry in the United States and Germany, Popov has won four times this season on the mini-tour circuit.

Kupcho says she hasn’t played in an official event since January, which leaves her in an unaccustomed position—excited to return to action, but uncertain how her game will hold up in the heat of premier competition.

“I feel like it will feel like a tournament, but I know I’m just going out there to have fun because I don’t know what  it’s going to bring,” she said. “It’s a lot different than playing against people at my club, or whatever guys are around for a little bet—it’s going to be a much bigger deal standing over a three-foot putt this week.

“It definitely really weird—I know I’ve been playing well when I go out and play, but it’s just a different feeling standing on the first tee at a tournament. It’s just a whole different type of experience—even if there aren’t any fans there.”

All 156 players in the field, to one extent or another, will be dealing with those contradictory emotions, the mixture of excitement, nervousness and desire to compete—and for some, there’s also the joy of just getting out of the house.

“I was just kind excited to get my suitcase out,” said Kim Kauffman, an LPGA veteran from Fort Worth, Texas. “I played this event my rookie year (2014) and I know it’s one of the best of all the State Opens and it’s just a chance to get out and travel and play a little bit. There are a lot of LPGA girls here who just want to tee it up for three days.

“I feel like it was years ago that the event in Phoenix (March’s Founders’ Cup) was cancelled. At that time, it was only going to be a couple of week; then it became a couple more weeks—now I just have a routine—I practice and play with the guys at my club on the weekends. Sadly, now I almost think we’re never going to get started.”

At this point, the LPGA is scheduled to resume play in mid-July—ditto for the Symetra Tour. For many of the players competing this week, a victory at Green Valley Ranch would go a long way to quell the anxiety of waiting for that day to come.

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