By Jeff Babineau
BELMONT, Mich. – There are no hidden secrets to success at Blythefield Country Club, home of the Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give. A player must walk onto the first tee, step on the gas, and never let up. The task of the day is to make eagles and birdies. Bogeys aren’t welcome.
A year ago, Nelly Korda shot 25-under 263 to win, which was a tournament record. And early Thursday, her peers on the LPGA picked up where she had left off. The round of the day belonged to Jennifer Kupcho, the 25-year-old former amateur standout who collected her first major title (Chevron Championship) earlier this season.
Playing in gusty winds in the day’s tougher afternoon wave, Kupcho went out in 6-under 30, and stood 9-under by the time she reached the 15th tee. That’s how she would finish. The final four holes presented the strongest winds of the day; when Kupcho missed the green at the par-4 17th (good bunker save) and three-putted the 18th hole for par (from 40 feet), she still was signing for the low round of her career, a 9-under 63.
Kupcho likes everything about Blythefield Country Club. She loves the golf course, loves that birdies are readily available, and has a great host family she enjoys. Beyond the majors, she always lists the Meijer among her favorite weeks of the year. On Thursday, she got hot with the putter, running in putts of 25 feet at the 13th (for birdie) and the par-5 14th (for eagle) to separate herself from the others playing in the afternoon. The next best score in the afternoon was 5-under 67, one of which was turned in by defending champion Nelly Korda, who birdied her last two to get there.
Overnight rains this week have softened the layout and made greens very receptive. Forty-four players from a field of 144 shot rounds in the 60s on Thursday, and 88 players broke par. Players able to avoid the rough off the tee – Kupcho proved adept at that, hitting 10 of 13 fairways – have lots of green lights to fire at pins. Kupcho got on one of those hot runs and never let up.
“I’ve really been comfortable at this place,” Kupcho said. “I felt like I could birdie every hole.”
Gerina Mendoza set the early pace with a round of 8-under 64 that included seven birdies and an eagle, the latter coming on her final hole of the day.
Lexi Thompson, a past champion and twice a runner-up at Blythefield, opened with 65. So did Anna Nordqvist, as well as fellow Swede Madeline Sagstrom, both of whom rode hot late runs to the clubhouse. Andrea Lee shot 66, and a large group at 5-under included defending champion Nelly Korda, at World No. 2, the highest-ranked player in the field.
There were few indications showing that of all the fast starters, Mendoza would start the fastest. She is 37 years old, and though she has more than $4 million in career earnings, competed at the Olympics in Rio and has appeared on three U.S. Solheim Cup teams, she had not shown a great deal of form of late. She missed the cut in her last four starts of 2021, and this season has only one finish better than T50, that being a tie or sixth at the LOTTE Championship in April.
“It feels awesome,” said Mendoza after seeing her name atop the board in the morning. She missed only two fairways, and hit 17 of 18 greens. “It’s been a while.”
Mendoza played in the Solheim Cup in 2017, then took maternity leave in 2018. She says being a mother and a professional golfer can be a double-edged sword. She works hard to be a great mom, but that doesn’t mean she can’t work hard to be an impactful player again, too.
“You have other priorities,” Mendoza said, “but at the same time, you still want to play good golf. You don’t want to just come out here going through the motions. So that definitely takes a while to find that balance.”
Mendoza finished off a hot round with a birdie from 18 feet at her penultimate hole, the 400-yard 17th, and then reached the 479-yard par-5 18th with a driver and 7-iron. She felt she was owed the eagle putt; earlier in the round, she had missed an eagle attempt from 6 feet at the eighth hole.
At 27, Thompson is one of the tour’s most dynamic players, and has won 11 times. But her last victory – the 2019 ShopRite LPGA Classic presented by Acer – came three years ago. She already is a two-time runner-up in 2022. At Blythefield this week, where she won in 2015, and finished second two other times, Thompson said she is taking things very slowly.
“I just kind of felt really relaxed the whole day,” Thompson said after her bogey-free effort. “Coming into today, I knew I’ve been hitting it well and I’ve been putting in the work, so just coming out here and believing in myself and just staying in the moment, in the present.”
After making one birdie in her first seven holes, Thompson then took flight, making birdies on six of her next 10 holes. She shot 65 despite making birdies on only two of the par-5 holes, easily reachable for her. She said the putter was a nice key on Thursday, as she steadily poured in 5- and 6-footers to keep momentum on her side.
Sagstrom, 29, notched her lone LPGA victory in 2020. She was another player who made a pedestrian round special with a torrid finish. Standing 2-under with five holes to play, she finished birdie-birdie-birdie-par-eagle to finish at 65.
Sagstrom has been trending nicely. She missed the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open (69-77), but prior to that, had finishes of T9 or better in four consecutive starts. How good was her closing stretch Thursday at Blythefield?
“Well,” Sagstrom said, “you just don’t feel like you can do anything wrong, really.”
Kupcho knew that feeling well on Thursday. Still, it was one day, one round. She says she sees lots of players who come out strong and then shoot even-par rounds to back it up, so her mindset will be to stay aggressive, keep making birdies, and stretch her lead in the morning.
Mendoza would like to do the same. She won’t play until later. She said she will see how she feels when morning beckons.
“Tomorrow is a new day,” Mendoza said. “You know, that’s the great thing about golf. If it was the same every day, your same feels would work day after day, and the same person would win every week, but that’s not the case.”