By Jeff Babineau
BELMONT, Mich. – There are so many good things for Jennifer Kupcho to recall from her personal highlight reel at last year’s Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give at Blythefield Country Club.
For starters, there was her sizzling opening 63 that put her in control of the tournament out of the gates on Day 1. There was the memorable playoff she survived against two top twentysomething contemporaries, Nelly Korda, the 2021 Meijer champion, and fast-rising Leona Maguire. The was the double bogey that Kupcho had to overcome early in her final round, and the eagle at No. 8 that got her back on track.
So, among the flood of great memories, what stands out most to the 26-year-old Kupcho? “Honestly,” she said recently, “probably my host family being there and screaming at me on the 18th hole. I think that’s my biggest memory.”
Kupcho’s sentiments capture the strong family atmosphere in Grand Rapids, where the community is known to put its arms around its annual LPGA stop. A golf course in fine shape that players enjoy and a spirited crowd that shows up to support its community event creates a strong combination that annually attracts one of the LPGA’s stronger fields. As a bonus, last year it produced a blockbuster finish, too, with plenty of suspense.
Kupcho is right at home with her host family in Grand Rapids, her fun nightly video game bouts with her younger twin hosts for the week keeping her from worrying too much about birdies and bogeys.
Winning wasn’t easy. Kupcho, who had captured her first major (Chevron) earlier in the ’22 season, had to be resilient. She bounced back from that early double at the par-4 third to battle her way into a spot in a three-way playoff that would prove to be one of the LPGA’s more star-powered, electric finishes of the 2022 season. Kupcho, Korda and Maguire all finished on 18-under 270.
Kupcho hit the shot of the week into the par-5 18th on the opening playoff hole, a second shot that came to a stop just outside of 2 feet for eagle. But she missed the putt, which forced a second playoff hole against Maguire. Kupcho showed the value of having a short memory. There, Maquire returned the favor, her 3-footer for birdie lipping out, with Kupcho’s second birdie in overtime leaving her holding the trophy. (Korda, returning after being out four months for surgery to alleviate a blood clot in her left arm, had bowed out with a three-putt par on the first hole of the playoff, but was pleasantly surprised by her form.)
The victory would be one of two that Kupcho would collect in Michigan last year. She also won alongside Lizette Salas, her Solheim Cup partner, at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, a team event in Midland, where two rolled to a five-shot triumph in July.
Summer is her time of year, a realization that has helped Kupcho deal with a slow start to 2023. In her first 10 starts, her best finish in a full-field event had been a tie for 21st. But Kupcho stepped up her game at the start of June in the new Mizuho Americas Open, where she shot 69-69 on the weekend to place second to Rose Zhang at Liberty National. Kupcho had been slowed mostly by poor putting, averaging nearly 31 putts per round, and ranked 39th in scoring (71.06). As summer arrives, she feels more comfortable on the bent putting surfaces she will see more frequently this time of year.
“I’m just really excited to get back on the summer swing,” Kupcho said. “It’s some of my favorite golf courses that definitely set up better for my game. I know coming into the middle of the season last year I kind of had a rough start as well, and that has been the case this year. So I’m really excited to get on golf courses and really just in cities and host families that I’m more comfortable with, to really go and try and play well.”
Kupcho is one of four past Meijer champions highlighting this week’s 144-player field, along with So Yeon Ryu, Lexi Thompson and Canadian Brooke Henderson, a two-time champion. They are joined by top-10 players Lydia Ko, Minjee Lee, and Hyo Joo Kim in a field that includes six former World No. 1s.
The community that supports this tournament so robustly is paid back by the tournament’s support for local charity. The Simply Give program helps restock the food pantries across the Midwest, and in eight previous events Meijer has raised more than $8.65 million. Kupcho’s victory included $25,000 from Meijer to donate to a hunger-relief organization of her choosing, and she chose Kids’ Food Basket, a local organization that is supported by her host family.
The Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give begins on Thursday and runs through Sunday at Blythefield Country Club. Kupcho would love to be in position to make such a generous donation again this year as part of a winning celebration. Even if it doesn’t happen, she still has the nightly video games with her host family twins that will keep her entertained.