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Jennifer Kupcho rises to the top: Takeaways from Chevron Championship

Jennifer Kupcho hoists the Chevron Championship trophy, the first of her LPGA career. (Harry How/Getty Images)

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — Jennifer Kupcho, for her first LPGA victory, won the 51st and final Chevron Championship by two strokes at the Dinah Shore Course on Sunday.

Here are five takeaways from the historic moment in women’s golf.

1. A mixed farewell to the Dinah Shore Course

Golf Channel commentator Jerry Foltz welcomed a Chevron executive to the stand during the trophy presentation Sunday. The fans around Poppie’s Pond, in their final act of rebellion, booed the tournament host’s representative in frustration that so much history is being left behind in Rancho Mirage.

No longer will passionate volunteers like 80-year-old Judi Callaway, who makes 1,000 roses a year sitting alongside the 18th fairway, be a constant reminder of the stories of the tournament. Nor will players walk alongside the names of all the past champions of the event, on a path culminating in a statue of Dinah Shore, the tournament’s patron saint.

First tee announcer Ron Gilgallion, who’s called players’ names for the last 24 years, summoned three-time Chevron champion Amy Alcott on Sunday. Alcott started the tradition of the winner leaping into Poppie’s Pond in 1988, and she was on hand to call out the last name ever announced on the first tee, that of last year’s champion, Patty Tavatanakit.

“It’s bittersweet, but I’m glad the LPGA, I’m glad Chevron is stepping in,” Alcott said of the moment. “I’m glad they’re doing whatever they need to do to elevate the tournament for these great players. One door closes, another door opens.”

Judy Rankin, a television broadcasting pioneer, also wrapped up her final tournament working as a lead analyst for Golf Channel. Fans peppered the outskirts of the course with signs acknowledging her history at the course.

Since the event’s inception in 1972, Rankin has been an omniscient presence as both a player and a commentator. She finished tied for second in the inaugural edition of the tournament, which Jane Blalock won, and captured the title herself in 1976.

The Hall of Famer wasn’t willing to write off the LPGA returning to Mission Hills Country Club.

“I might be sticking my foot in my mouth — I believe the best golfers in the game will be back at Mission Hills in some shape or fashion,” Rankin said Sunday as Lexi Thompson walked onto the 18th green.

An hour before Kupcho’s final tap-in putt for victory, past champions Sandra Palmer (1975), Alcott (1983, 1988, 1991), Patty Sheehan (1996) and Patricia Meunier-Lebouc (2003) gathered to take a group winners’ leap into Poppie’s Pond. It served as a culmination of Chevron’s 51 years of history as title sponsor of the tournament.

“As a past champion, it is hard,” Meunier-Lebouc said, “because we have so many memories here, and I think it is an unbelievable tournament venue, people.

“We have to recognize that what the people in the community have done is tremendous. It’s not only what we lose, it’s what the community loses. I have to trust the LPGA and the Chevron people and what they’re doing. They better do a good job. If we go away from here, it has to be something big.”

2. Jennifer Kupcho’s putter delivers Chevron Championship

Kupcho walked to the first tee Sunday with a six-shot lead over Patty Tavatanakit, with her putter delivering 10 makes over 10 feet through the first three rounds.

The trend continued during the final round, with Kupcho making back-to-back birdie putts on the fourth and fifth holes to take the turn with the same six-stroke lead at 17-under par.

The 24-year-old’s momentum stalled briefly with bogeys on 10, 13 and 14. With four holes to go, Kupcho sat at 15-under par, while Jessica Korda, a group ahead of her, hit a bunker shot to two feet above the 15th hole.

After piping a drive down the 15th fairway, Kupcho arrived at her ball with a smile. She had the exact same yardage and pin location as she did when she holed out at this point two years ago.

“To be able to have that, that’s what I thought about, and I think that is what made me hit such a good shot into 15,” Kupcho said.

“Then I was able to just coast in.”

Korda missed her short par look, and Kupcho arrived at the 18th green with cheers of “Jennifer” echoing off Poppie’s Pond.

“One of the biggest things I’ve fought over the last year and a half is everyone is out here cheering for Nelly [Korda] or Lexi [Thompson] or someone else I’m playing with,” Kupcho said after her win. “I don’t ever hear, ‘Go Jennifer.’ That was really special today to have that.”

Three years after Kupcho became the first woman to win at Augusta, when she captured the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in 2019, she walked away Sunday as the last champion at the Dinah Shore Course. The Chevron Championship has been the LPGA’s closest equivalent to the PGA’s Masters at Augusta National, with its 51 years of history.

After Kupcho finished her press conference, she acknowledged the more than 20 girls standing outside the press room calling out, “Jennifer! Jennifer!”

After Kupcho’s performance this weekend, it’s hard to imagine those will be the last chants we hear for her.

3. Lorena Ochoa and founders earn overdue LPGA Hall of Fame induction

Last Tuesday, the LPGA announced it would remove the 10-year requirement for golfers to get into its Hall of Fame, making 27-time winner Lorena Ochoa eligible. The Mexican star is the first from her homeland to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“It’s an honor to receive this recognition,” Ochoa said. “It was unexpected and very special to me.”

The LPGA also granted an honorary bid to the eight founders not currently in the Hall of Fame — Alice Bauer, Bettye Danoff, Helen Dettwiler, Helen Hicks, Opal Hill, Sally Sessions, Marilynn Smith, and Shirley Spork. Spork, 94, was the last remaining and living founder not in the Hall of Fame.

“Getting into the LPGA Hall of Fame is the highest honor ever in our profession, so I’ve climbed the whole ladder and gotten to the top,” Spork said. “I hope I can sit up on that ladder for a few more years and enjoy it.”

Stacy Lewis, the former world No. 1, said last week that she worked behind the scenes to try to make this possible.

“Since Shirley is getting older, we needed to do it before we lose all of our founders,” Lewis said. “They should be in the LPGA Hall of Fame. Without them we wouldn’t be where we are.”

Membership expanded from 25 to 34 with the update. Under the new roles, a gold medal won at the Olympics also earns a player a point, retroactively granting points to Inbee Park from 2016 and Nelly Korda from Tokyo last summer.

Still, there are questions about whether the tour went far enough with the changes. Since the turn of the millennia, only five players have passed the 27-point benchmark to earn their way in: Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak, Inbee Park and Lorena Ochoa.

4. Jin Young Ko’s historic run ends

At the end of the first round Thursday, Ko sat a stroke outside of the cut line with her first over-par card in 35 rounds, marking an LPGA-record 34 straight rounds under par. After battling back with a second-round 68 to make the cut and sit two-under par and seven behind the lead, Ko opened up about how tired she felt after the JTBC Classic.

“I think last week was a tough course, so I used lots of energy on the course, and then [it was] hilly, so my body feels a little tired,” she said Friday.

Ko, the 2021 CME Group Tour Championship winner and LPGA Player of the Year, ended up at even par for a T-53 finish at Mission Hills. The result brought her run of 10 straight top-10 finishes to an end.

Ko hasn’t broken the top 50 now in her last two major starts, with this week’s finish following a T-60 at the Amundi Evian Championship last July. The South Korean said her goal is to accomplish the career grand slam of winning all five majors, and she checked two off the list in 2019: the Chevron Championship and the Amundi Evian Championship.

The World No. 1’s next event, as of now, is the DIO Implant Open in Los Angeles starting April 21.

5. Jessica Korda knocks on the major championship door

While the No. 2 player in the world, Nelly Korda, is out indefinitely with a blood clot, her sister took up the mantle over the weekend. Jessica pushed Kupcho with a Sunday 69 to finish in second, her best result at a major championship. For a brief moment, Korda trailed Kupcho by two with four to play, but she missed a short par putt on the 15th green to fall behind.

“Second place is not bad after being 3-over through 7, so pretty proud of myself,” Korda said.

The Kordas are one of three sister pairs to win on the LPGA, joining Annika and Charlotta Sorenstam, and Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn. The tour, however, has yet to have a pair of sisters win major titles — Annika, Nelly and Ariya are the major champions of the bunch.

Jessica Korda currently has the most victories of any active LPGA player without a major title. With her second-place finish, she’s trending in the direction of making history alongside her sister.

“I’ve always been hungry. If you’re not hungry, you’re in the wrong place,” she said.

“I’ve been close a bunch of times, and sometimes it just needs to be meant to be, and currently it hasn’t been.”

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.