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Jennifer Kupcho shows off vast potential at Chevron Championship

Jennifer Kupcho hits her tee shot on the eighth hole at the Chevron Championship on Thursday. (Harry How/Getty Images)

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — For the second time in just over a month, Jennifer Kupcho is partnering up.

Six weeks after getting married in mid-February, the American polished a six-under par 66 in the opening round of the Chevron Championship to sit tied for the lead with Minjee Lee entering Friday. Kupcho got there grouped alongside Solheim Cup teammate and close friend Lizette Salas, who attended her wedding in mid-February. After hugging on the 18th hole, Salas asked Kupcho to be her teammate at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, the LPGA Tour’s team event in July, writing the question on her scorecard.

Kupcho immediately accepted, and the friends walked arm-in-arm to the scorer’s tent.

“After that performance,” Salas said, “I’m not going to miss an opportunity to ask her.”

Kupcho’s work with her other partner, husband Jay Monahan, who caddies on the LPGA Tour, fueled her nine-birdie performance Thursday, including four consecutive birdies from the 11th to the 14th holes. During their training, they focused on making sure Kupcho takes her putter straight back and through, compared to when she used to cut across the ball, to attain more consistent results.

“I have been working on my putting a lot,” Kupcho explained. “I mean, as everyone in the world says, my putting is not my strong suit.”

She took advantage of the pure greens of the Dinah Shore course Thursday with 24 putts, matching her career-low from the first round at the 2021 ISPS Handa World Invitational and the second round of the 2019 Taiwan Swinging Skirts.

“I think it’s just being comfortable on this golf course,” Kupcho said, “I get here and I just feel comfortable. I love this place. Then getting to play with Lizette, who is my good friend, it was just all comfortable and really fun.”

The golfers’ camaraderie was on display for the entire round. On the 16th hole, Salas, who averages 18 yards less off the tee than Kupcho, outdrove her by a couple of yards. Salas turned to the gallery and said, “Hey, I just outdrove her,” to laughter and applause from the fans, and she remained jovial while shooting two-over par Thursday.

When they partnered together at the Solheim Cup, Salas, known for her putting ability, trusted Kupcho with reading the greens at Inverness.

On Thursday, the greens and the scenery of the Dinah Shore course also comforted Kupcho during her opening round. The layout and looming San Jacinto mountain range remind the 24-year-old of the desert golf in Colorado, where she grew up, and in Arizona, where she lives now.

“Just to see the same kind of grass and everything like that,” Kupcho said, “it’s just a comfort for me.”

Even after she missed the cut last week at the JTBC Classic, the pressure of major championships brings out Kupcho’s best. Salas, who described Kupcho at the Solheim Cup as someone with ice water in her veins, sees her fiery approach as what drives her success.

“She was a core of our team, our duo, and we complement each other very well,” Salas said. “She’s a fierce competitor. You can just tell. She hates making bogey. She just bounces back right after. That’s just how she is.”

Kupcho’s competitiveness has fueled her at some of the most significant events in women’s golf. In 2019, Kupcho outlasted 2019 individual NCAA Champion Maria Fassi at the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Then, Kupcho blitzed up the leaderboard with a closing 66 at the 2019 Evian Championship, the fourth major on the LPGA calendar, to finish tied for second in the best major performance of her career. In Kupcho’s first Solheim Cup last summer, she went 2-0-1 in team play alongside Salas.

Now, as she sits atop the leaderboard entering Day 2 at the Chevron Championship, she’s in a position to contend to become the first American to win the event since Brittany Lincicome in 2015.

“I admire her,” Salas said. “Even though I’m a ten-year veteran, she’s someone I admire. Her game is awesome. It’s on point.”

Kent Paisley is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering golf and the LPGA. He also contributes to Golf Digest. Follow him on Twitter @KentPaisley.