By Jeff Babineau
BELMONT, Mich. – Jennifer Kupcho experienced just about every emotion one could experience on the 18th green at Blythefield Country Club on Sunday, home to the Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give. She felt the elation of hitting her best shot of the week – an 8-iron that settled 3 feet beyond the flagstick to set up a potential winning eagle – and the guttural disappointment of sliding the putt past the hole and needing to head back to try it all over again.
If nothing else, though, Kupcho was all about perseverance at the Meijer. She hit it everywhere on Saturday and still managed to shoot 69. And Sunday, the kept belief after a terrible start. Against a world-class field, Kupcho just kept fighting, earned her way into a playoff, and then defeated two of the top young talents in the game, Nelly Korda and Leona Maguire, to win her second LPGA title of the season.
It wasn’t easy, nor did she figure it would be. Just as Kupcho was shocked when she missed her putt, she was probably more shocked when Maguire, her old rival from the ACC, missed one from similar length, about 3 feet, to extend the playoff on the second playoff hole. It was about the only shot that Maguire (65) didn’t pull off all day.
Kupcho won her first LPGA title earlier this year, the Chevron Championship, which is a major. In that one, she had a nice lead in the final round. At Blythefield, every stroke meant something in a tumultuous final day.
“Yeah, I think this one is even better than the first, personally,” said Kupcho, who shot a closing 71 to tie Korda and Maguire at 18-under 270 . She earned $375,000 for her victory. “I had such a big lead going into the final round at Chevron, so to come out of this one with, I mean, top-ranked players all over the place, the leaderboard was packed, within strokes, so it really was very close.
“I feel very proud of myself for coming out of it.”
Maguire charged hard for the second consecutive year at the Meijer. Last year, she shot 66 on Sunday and lost by two to Korda, who a week later would win her first major and become World No. 1. This time, Maguire went one better, firing 65, then waited near the clubhouse to see if it would be good enough for a playoff. When Kupcho hit her drive up against the lip of a fairway bunker at the short, par-5 18th and managed no better than a par, Maguire, also a first-time winner this season, had her opportunity.
So, too, did Korda, who struggled throughout the day but still birdied the final hole to get to 270 alongside the others. Korda, trying to become Meijer’s first back-to-back champion (and only second mulitiple champion), shot 72 on Sunday, the first time in 15 rounds at the Meijer she was not in the 60s.
“Unfortunately, sometimes you have it and sometimes you don’t,” said Korda, 23, who was making only her second start since early February, having required surgery to alleviate a blood clot in her left arm. She was out of the game for more than three months.
“If you told me I think three, four months ago when I was in the ER that I would be here, I would being extremely happy.”
Sunday was set up for fireworks, but several of the big guns struggled to match the low scores they had been shooting through the first 54 holes. Korda, who shot 62 at Blythefield last year, started the day at 18-under and finished there, shooting even par. Brooke Henderson, a two-time winner at Meijer who was coming off a victory last week at the ShopRite, had to birdie her last hole to shoot 72. Lexi Thompson, seeking her first LPGA victory in three years, tied for the lead at one point, going out in 33. But she made three bogeys on the back nine and shot 70.
“I had a rough stretch on my second nine,” Thompson said, “but I kept going with a positive attitude hoping I could birdie every hole in, and I kept on trying. Something to build on, and learn from it, and move on.”
Kupcho started the day one back but fell to three behind when she played her first seven holes in 3-over. She appeared frustrated. But she kept on fighting, and found a spark when she rolled in a long eagle putt at the 475-yard eighth hole. She tacked on a birdie at the ninth and was right back in the middle of things.
At one point, Kupcho, Korda, Maguire and Thompson shared the lead on the back nine. It was wild. Kupcho made birdies at 12 and 14, but bogeyed the par-4 16th hole with an errant tee shot and an approach that came up short, missing a 12-footer for par. She still was poised to win with a birdie at the 18th, but those plans went awry once her tee shot settled up near the lip of a right-side fairway bunker.
So much adversity – the bad start, the drive against the lip, the missed 3-footer to win on the first hole of a playoff – but Kupcho kept telling herself to hang in there.
“She’s a gamer,” said her caddie, Dave Eller, who began working for Kupcho at the start of the season. “When her back is against the wall, she really digs deep and does what she knows, and that’s play good golf. She’s not scared out there. Sometimes she gets down on herself, but she is never scared to hit the right shot.
“You saw that today. She is not afraid of the moment.”
She is not. It was never easy on Sunday, but Kupcho rode it out better than anyone. For that, she is a winner once more.