By Jeff Babineau

BELMONT, Mich.Jennifer Kupcho, defending champion at this week’s Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give, found an interesting way to try to escape her 2023 swoon: She stopped looking at leaderboards.

At one recent start in New Jersey, she even took the time to jot down where the leaderboards were located into her yardage book, so that she would not find one inadvertently while passing by. Good thing Kupcho wasn’t looking at leaderboards on Thursday at the Meijer LPGA Classic. It was pretty crowded at the top.

Kupcho, 26, who counted the Meijer LPGA Classic among her three victories in 2022, is back where she left off in this city, shooting 6-under 66 in the afternoon chill at Blythefield Country Club, where, a year ago, she prevailed in a three-way playoff over Nelly Korda and Leona Maguire. Kupcho set a par for herself of 68 on Thursday, then proceeded to better it.

“Set low goals, I guess, and you achieve them, so, yeah, I just came out looking to keep playing well and that’s what I did,” Kupcho said.

Alongside Kupcho at 66 on Thursday were Texans Cheyenne Knight and Lindsey Weaver-Wright, Japan’s Ayaka Furue, and Sweden’s Frida Kinhult. Kupcho, Knight and Kinhult all were bogey-free on their rounds.

On a day when Blythefield Country Club was dampened by early rains and was quite “gettable,” four players (Emily Kristine Pedersen, Amy Yang, Ally Ewing and Allison Lee) shot 67s and were one shot back. 

A dozen more got into the clubhouse at 68. That group included last year’s U.S. Women’s Open champion, Minjee Lee, as well as Ashleigh Buhai of South Africa, who captured last week’s ShopRite LPGA Classic Presented by Acer, her second LPGA victory. 

Kupcho won her first major (Chevron) a year ago, but has been frustrated by her play dating the end of last season. She had not finished inside the top-20 in a full-field event in 2023 until two weeks ago, at the Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National in New Jersey. It was there she decided to trade looking at boards and worrying about making the cut for just keeping her head down and playing as hard as she can. It worked. She finished second to young sensation Rose Zhang.

“I struggled a lot mentally at the end of last year and coming into this year, really with confidence in my game that I could do it again,” said Kupcho, a former standout at Wake Forest.

“I think not thinking about just making the cut, but where I can actually be, that’s what I found at Liberty National. I had been scoreboard watching before that. Not looking at scoreboards all week, just going into the final day not knowing what Rose was doing was a little interesting, something I’ve never experienced in my life. But it certainly helped me, and now I feel like I’ve got my game back.”

One thing Kupcho did exceptionally on Thursday was take care of Blythefield’s par-5 holes. There are five of them, and the long-hitting Kupcho played them in 4 under. Kinhult, on the other hand, birdied only one, then par-5 eighth, where she ran in a 16-footer. That made her opening effort even more impressive. She had a chance to hold the first-round lead alone, but was unable to get up-and-down from just in front of the green at the 478-yard 18th, her 7-footer for 65 failing to drop.

That was OK, though. Overall, she was happy with the number.

“I’m an aggressive player and I think I’ll stick with who I am, and especially this course, it’s pretty gettable,” Kinhult said. “It’s a fun track, very gettable, and you have to be making birdies to be up there. So just stick to my plan, be aggressive, and try to make some birdies and have fun.”

With six birdies and no bogeys on Thursday, she had plenty of fun. Knight, 26, whose lone LPGA triumph came in 2019 (Volunteers of America Classic), went the steady route, as well. Her play has been building nicely of late, with three top-10s and no finish worse than T13 in her last four starts. She said the key to her round on Thursday was how good she drove the ball.

“I played pretty solid today,” Knight said. “Didn’t make a ton of mistakes, and when I did, I was able to recover. You know, it’s always low (scoring) out here and you kind of know that in the back of your mind, so it was nice to just kind of throw a few birdies in there today.”

Weaver-Wright, 29, is playing in her 96th LPGA event and is seeking her first victory. Her best finish was solo second a year ago at the ShopRite. The highlight of her opening round was a 7-wood she hit to 30 feet at the par-5 eighth, where she rolled in the putt for an eagle-3.

Furue has been on a nice little run of golf herself of late. In between fourth-place showings at the JM Eagle LA Championship presented by Plastpro and the Mizuho Americas Open, she made it to the finals of the Bank of Hope Match-Play presented by MGM Rewards in Las Vegas, where she was defeated by Parjaree Anannarukarn of Thailand. Furue, only 23, is an explosive player. In the opening round at Blythefield, she birdied six of her first 10 holes.

“I think my putting was really good today,” Furue said through a translator, “and I guess my shot was also good, as well.”

It all added up to 66 for her, and bigger picture, a very crowded leaderboard – even if the tournament’s defending champion did everything she could not to look.