Although the coronavirus made it a different tournament, in the end, former Colorado resident Jennifer Kupcho’s game triumphed over that as well as a stellar field.
AFTER ALL THE precautions and best practices, the sanitized carts, dedicated bunker rakers—and lack of spectators—there was still the matter of what the actual golf would look like at the 2020 CoBank Colorado Women’s Open. After all, despite a field that tournament organizers called “unquestionably” its best ever, the truth was, because of the novel coronavirus, other than the random skins game at their local club, not many of the participants had played a lot of golf in the days and months preceding the event.
Becca Huffer, the defending champion, confessed that her clubs were all but gathering mothballs at her family home in Monument. Kim Kaufman, an LPGA veteran from Fort Worth, Texas, longed to do something more than beat up on the guys at her home course, saying she got excited to pull out her suitcase for the trip to Colorado and a chance to tee it up for three rounds.
That feeling was shared by most of the 120 players in the field.
“It’ll be a little different standing over a three-foot putt,” said Jennifer Kupcho. Now based in Arizona, Kupcho has enjoyed a magical run of late, including an NCAA championship as well as victory in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur. After turning pro, the Westminster native has amassed a handful of top-10 finishes, including a second in a major championship.
But entering last month’s tournament at Green Valley Ranch Golf Club, Kupcho admitted she wasn’t sure where her game stood, particularly when it came to competing under pressure against high-caliber players.
In February, Kupcho won $600 for finishing second in a makeshift event put together by members at her club— in Denver she would be playing for a $50,000 first-place prize.
“It’s definitely going to be really weird,” Kupcho said. “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.”
During the third and final round, everything—the anticipation of what the tournament could be, the nerves, the quality of play, even a sizable, (sort of) socially-distanced gallery—coalesced into a glorious afternoon that reminded everyone on the grounds of how special golf, played at the highest level, can be. In the final stroke of the tournament, Kupcho tapped in a putt from much closer than three feet, the kick-in par delivering her first professional win and a lifetime of memories.
“It’s really exciting,” Kupcho said. “Just to be back in my home state and playing well—the field was really strong, to win this was great.”
Kupcho shot a 16-under-par 272, shattering the tournament scoring record by five strokes; even so, the triumph was far from assured headed into the final hole. While her play was clearly stellar, and seemingly perched to run away from the field, that never happened—largely because of another LPGA veteran, Carlota Ciganda of Spain. While Kupcho held all the local cachet, it was Ciganda who was actually the higher-ranked player, entering the event No. 15 in the world.
When Kupcho birdied the second and third holes of the final round to take a five shot lead over Ciganda, it seemed time for the calligrapher to start etching the name of Huffer’s successor, but Ciganda came firing back, birdieing four of the final six holes on the front to put the pressure back on Kupcho.
“I would never think I had it locked up— and especially against Carlota,” Kupcho said afterwards. “I mean, I’ve seen her shoot nine-under on a back nine, so you never know what’s going to happen.”
Indeed, the day—and the championship—came down to the 545-yard, par-5 18th hole, with Ciganda needing to make eagle to have any chance of winning. Hitting her second shot from about 270 yards out, the ball ended up in a hazard; Ciganda eventually bogeyed the hole, finishing in second place, three shots behind Kupcho.
“That’s how you want to feel, having that adrenaline—that’s why you play golf,” Ciganda said about the tournament’s final hole. “You want that option to win—I knew I needed the eagle, so I went for it. It was great; it was a great match and [Kupcho] played great— she deserved to win.”
Kaufman, the first-round leader, finished in a tie for third place behind Kupcho and Ciganda at 11-under, while former University of Colorado star Jenny Coleman was fifth. Huffer, who was solidly in the top 10 after the first day, tweaked her back early in the second round and struggled physically for the rest of the tournament. She eventually gutted her way to finish tied for 26th.
This article was also featured in the July 2020 issue of Colorado AvidGolfer.