Jennifer Kupcho survives wobbly moments, wins thrilling Meijer LPGA Classic in playoff

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Belmont, Mich. — The golf wasn't always pretty.

But it was plenty exciting, as the Meijer LPGA Classic always tends to be.

And in the end, it was Jennifer Kupcho raising the crystal trophy — and, later, a bottle of bubbly — after making a pair of birdies on two sudden-death playoff holes Sunday evening, the second of which clinched her second LPGA victory. She beat Leona Maguire, who lipped out on a 3-footer for birdie on the second playoff hole, and defending champion Nelly Korda, who three-putted for par on the first extra hole.

Jennifer Kupcho plays her tee shot on the 12th hole during the final round Sunday of the Meijer LPGA Classic at Blythefield Country Club.

Kupcho survived a final-round 71, in which she had a double-bogey on the third hole and failed to birdie the 18th for the outright win when her tee shot caught the lip of a fairway bunker.

The resiliency of battling through the bad shots (a double and two bogeys) to persevere in the end (with an eagle and five birdies, two in the playoff) was a rewarding feeling for Kupcho, and, if she's being honest, a relatively new feeling, too.

"I saw it at ShopRite a couple years ago, two years ago, where I made double, I think it was 8, and I kind of just thought I was out of it the whole time and I ended up not being out of it," Kupcho said. "That's definitely what I would've thought in the past.

"That was kind of the turning point, being able to tell myself, 'Hey, you're not out of this ... Let's go.'"

Kupco hit her drive on the first playoff hole on the exact same line as the final hole of regulation, but found an extra yard this time — "adrenaline," she believed — and it ricocheted off a downhill slope just past the bunker and spit several yards down the fairway. From there, she had 164 yards, and went flag hunting with an 8 iron, landing her second shot just shy of the green and rolling it to just 3 feet past the hole. She called it the best shot of her week. And for a moment, it looked like she might have a walk-off albatross.

Instead, Kupcho pulled the eagle putt, sending her and Maguire to another extra hole.

She actually almost missed the extra same-length putt for birdie in regulation.

"That just comes with a lot of nerves," she said, laughing now, as her bag stood a few feet away surrounded by cracked Miller Lite cans on the ground, "and a lot of shaking."

Maguire, who began the day seven shots back of Korda's lead before carding a 7-under 65, missed her 20-foot eagle putt on the first playoff hole but tapped in for birdie. Korda, who shot a final-round 72, three-putted from 40 feet for par, done in by a tee shot that found the right rough, into some tree trouble. The playoff marked the first time all week when Korda didn't birdie or eagle the 18th hole at Blythefield Country Club.

Back on the 18th tee, Maguire found the right rough, while Kupcho again got another great bounce, from the right rough into the fairway. From there, Maguire shaped a neat fairway wood around some trees, rolling up to 25 feet, while Kupcho found the back fringe, 15 feet away.

Both missed the eagle effort, Maguire just barely — but her putt slid by to just outside tap-in range, and one of the game's better putters couldn't convert.

"Honestly, it was just shock," said Kupcho, who won her first LPGA title in April, a major championship at the Chevron, or the old Dinah Shore. "She went to Duke, I went to Wake Forest, playing her so much, she doesn't miss putts. I was really just shocked."

The trio finished regulation at 18 under, one shot ahead of Lydia Ko, who was 17 under after a 68. Jessica Korda, Nelly's older sister, was in a group of four players at 16 under which included Lexi Thompson, who took the outright lead with a birdie on 10 at 18 under, but stumbled down the stretch.

Thompson pulled her tee shot at the par-5 14th into the lake, and made bogey, one of three bogeys the back nine and she stumbled to a final-round 70.

"I had a rough stretch on my second nine," said Thompson, who won the Meijer LPGA Classic in 2015 coming from four shots back — her same deficit to start Sunday.

"Something to build on and learn from it, and move on."

Carlota Ciganda (67) and Atthaya Thitikul (68) also finished at 16 under, tied for fifth.

Brooke Henderson, still the only two-time winner of the Meijer (2017 and 2019) after Nelly Korda came up short Sunday, finished at 15 under after a 72, tied for ninth with Wei-Ling Hsu, who shot 66.

LPGA legend Cristie Kerr, 44, finished tied for 12th at 13 under, after a 69.

This marked the third playoff in the eight playings of the Meijer LPGA Classic, and first since 2016 — this one a battle of two of the young stars, Kupcho and Maguire, at last fall's Solheim Cup, in Toledo.

Kupcho wasn't happy at the end of her round Saturday, and took her frustrations out on a post-round range session, and she wasn't happy early her round Sunday, when she made the early double-bogey. Then, after a bogey at the sixth, Kupcho trailed Korda by three strokes, which traditionally is an insurmountable gap at the birdie-and-eagle bonanza that is the Meijer.

But Kupcho, 25, a Colorado native, steadied the ship in a major way at the par-5 eighth hole, when she rolled in a 25-foot, right-to-left putt for eagle, then birdied the ninth hole, too.

Kupcho made another bomb on the back nine, a 40-footer for birdie, but still had to maneuver some hiccups, including a bogey at the 16th hole and then the par at the 18th. A birdie would've won her the title in regulation, but her tee shot caught the bunker and all she could do was blast out for her second.

In the end, it just delayed the celebration — and a happy phone call to Dad, Mike, on Father's Day.

"It's really special," said Kupcho, who collected $375,000 and pushed her career earnings close to $3 million. "I thought to myself this morning that I should call him, but I kept telling myself, 'No, we'll call him after the round with a trophy in my hand.' And I'm excited I can do that now."

For Korda, 23, it was one of those days — not that the world No. 2 has many of those days. She made birdie at 18 to make the playoff, a rare highlight on her day. She didn't make a birdie until the 10th hole. She entered the round 13 under on the par 5s, then made a bogey and par on the front-nine par-5s on Sunday. After the birdie at 10, Korda made another at 12, and it looked like another dazzling back nine in the making, but she followed with a bogey at 13 — and it just wasn't her day. Korda and Hernderson were the only two players in the top 17 on the final leaderboard not to break par.

Still, it's the second good showing for Korda, who returned two weeks ago to finish eighth at the U.S. Open, after a long layoff with a blood clot.

Meanwhile, it was the second consecutive runner-up showing at the Meijer for Ireland's Maguire, 27, who, like Kupcho, got her first win earlier this year, and shot the day's low round Sunday in pursuit of her second.

The LPGA returns to Michigan next month for the third playing of the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, a two-person team event hosted by Midland Country Club from July 13-16.

Meijer champions

2022: Jennifer Kupcho, -18*

2021: Nelly Korda, -25

2020: No tournament

2019: Brooke Henderson, -21

2018: Ryu So-yeon, -21

2017: Brooke Henderson, -17

2016: Kim Sei-young, -17*

2015: Lexi Thompson, -18

2014: Mirim Lee, -14*


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Twitter: @tonypaul1984