NCAA champion and Jefferson Academy graduate Jennifer Kupcho didn’t immediately grasp the significance of hitting the opening shot Wednesday in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur until the somber silence that greeted her on the first tee.
Seeing her name atop the leaderboard at the end of the day felt much more normal.
Kupcho, the top-ranked female amateur in the world, played bogey-free at Champions Retreat Golf Club for a 4-under 68 and share of the lead with 16-year-old Zoe Campos to take a big step toward competing at Augusta National.
After another round at Champions Retreat, the top 30 from the 72-player field face a final round Saturday at Augusta National, making them the first women to compete at the home of the Masters.
Campos, who plans to play at UCLA, birdied the par-5 18th for her 68.
They had a one-shot lead over Kaleigh Telfer of South Africa, who started on the back nine and birdied two of her last three holes.
“It was awesome,” said Kupcho, a senior at Wake Forest. “This round, I think this is the first time I’ve ever had no bogeys and hit 18 greens. So probably the first perfect round I’ve played.”
It helped to play in the opening group with Olivia Mehaffey of Northern Ireland, whom Kupcho knows from the Curtis Cup. Mehaffey made the first birdie of the tournament and opened with a 73.
Joining them was Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand, who won the Asia-Pacific Women’s Amateur last year. Thitikul did not make a birdie in her round of 79, hurting her chances of competing at Augusta National on Saturday.
All 72 players will at least get to play a practice round at Augusta National on Friday.
Kupcho wasn’t aware she was hitting the opening tee shot until it was pointed out to her on Tuesday. It was a different experience, with club chairman Fred Ridley among those solemnly standing by for the big moment.
“It was very official,” Kupcho said. “I walked up, everyone was very quiet, like no talking to each other at all. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is crazy.’ But yeah, it was a great experience to have everyone there. Mr. Chairman was there. It was exciting to get to hit it. I was a little nervous, but somehow it went straight.”
Maria Fassi of Mexico, a big-hitting senior at Arkansas, was among those at 70. Another shot behind was Haley Moore, who made the winning putt at the NCAA last year when Arizona captured the team title.
Alexa Pano, the 14-year-old from Florida who last month had a share of the lead going into the final round of a Symetra Tour event, had a wild day that ended with a 77. She was 4 over through six holes, ran off three straight birdies and then shot 40 on the back nine.
The players began the week with dinner at Augusta National, a tease to inspire them to get back there with a silver trophy on the line.