Kupcho, Lee share lead in last major at Mission Hills

Mar 31, 2022, 6:40 AM | Updated: 6:56 pm
Jennifer Kupcho tees off on the 17th hole during the Chevron Championship golf tournament Thursday,...

Jennifer Kupcho tees off on the 17th hole during the Chevron Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 31, 2022, in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (AP) — Jennifer Kupcho shared the lead Thursday in The Chevron Championship in her second — and last — start at Mission Hills, the tree-lined layout she has quickly fallen in love with.

“Honestly, I think it’s just being comfortable on this golf course,” Kupcho said. “I get here and I just, I feel comfortable. I love this place.”

Kupcho shot a 6-under 66 in sunny and calm morning conditions to join fellow early starter Minjee Lee atop the leaderboard after the first round of the final edition of the major championship at Mission Hills.

“I really like the layout of this golf course, the beautiful shape that it’s in every year,” Kupcho said. “It always is so fun to be here, so just taking advantage of how much I like the course and the atmosphere.”

Unable to find a sponsor willing to remain at Mission Hills, the tournament that started in 1972 as the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winner’s Circle and became a major in 1983 is shifting to Houston next year under a deal with Chevron.

“Definitely sad,” Carolina Masson said after a 68. “I understand why we’re doing it, but I’m just trying to soak in every second being out here. The golf course is playing as good as ever.”

Defending champion Patty Tavatanakit was a stroke back, finishing late in the afternoon in gusting wind.

“Really proud,” Tavatanakit said. “I feel like I really got my momentum going, was really present today.”

Kupcho birdied Nos. 11-14 to get to 8 under, then bogeyed the next two holes. She birdied four of the first five and finished with nine birdies and three bogeys.

“You really need to hit fairways on a major golf course, so that was like my biggest thing today, to hit a bunch of fairways,” Kupcho said. “That really set me up for all my birdies.”

Winless on the LPGA Tour, Kupcho won the 2018 NCAA individual title for Wake Forest and took the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur the following year after passing up a spot that week at Mission Hills.

The 24-year-old from Colorado arrived early in the desert after missing the cut Friday in Carlsbad. “I just used the two days that I did have on the weekend to come here and practice,” she said.

Lee birdied all four par 5s in a bogey-free round on the mountain-framed course.

“It was perfect,” Lee said. “Not like a breath of wind when we played. Maybe just a tiny bit. But conditions are great. Putting greens are rolling real nice. I don’t think you can get better than that.”

The 25-year-old Australian, ranked fourth in the world, won the Evian Championship last summer for her first major title and sixth LPGA Tour victory.

“I know I have one under my belt, but I do want a little bit more,” Lee said. “I just think I have a little bit more belief in myself and my game, so I can be a little bit more comfortable just hitting the shots.”

Third-ranked Lydia Ko, the 2015 champion, was at 68 with Masson, Anna Nordqvist, Georgia Hall, Gabriela Ruffels and Pajaree Anannarukarn. Lexi Thompson, the 2014 winner, was another stroke back with Sarah Schmelzel, Annie Park, Lauren Stephenson, Pauline Roussin-Bouchard and Hinako Shibuno.

Thompson marveled at course she first played as a 14-year-old amateur.

“I’ve never seen it this good,” Thompson said. “It always surprises me every year. It’s always better. The greens are amazing. I’m one to putt and usually aim at things along the way, and there is just not an imperfection on greens to aim at. It’s a good problem.”

Schmelzel is making her fourth appearance.

“This place is really special,” Schmelzel said. “I feel like growing up watching the LPGA Tour, these are holes that I remember. These are holes that I wanted to be on one day.”

Park played as a single in the first group in the afternoon off the first tee.

“It was kind of weird the first couple holes just playing by myself,” Park said. “It was really peaceful.”

Top-ranked Jin Young Ko, the 2019 winner, shot a 74 to end her under-par streak at 34 rounds. Her run of at least one birdie ended at 53 rounds.

“I was hitting lots of great shots, but my putting wasn’t good,” she said. “I couldn’t see the break as much or speed. Everything was wrong.”

Ally Ewing and Moriya Jutanugarn had an eventful finish on the par-5 18th when the sprinklers on the green turned on at about 6 p.m. as Ewing was preparing for a 4-foot birdie putt. After a short delay, she holed out for a 70.

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Kupcho, Lee share lead in last major at Mission Hills