The post-Masters Butler Cabin trophy presentation is both intimately familiar and extremely well choreographed. The green jackets have drilled the routine with militaristic precision, to the point that any deviation from the norm warrants a full internet investigation into what went wrong.
God, that never gets old.
One of the beats in this little one-act play is the group stand, as all rise from their wood-and-leather seats to congratulate the winner.
On Saturday afternoon, though, there were no luxe seating arrangements for Jennifer Kupcho, the senior from Wake Forest and top-ranked female amateur in the world. No seats, even after she made history as the inaugural winner of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. No seats, even after she buried a 25-foot birdie putt on 18 to put an emphatic stamp on her four-shot victory. No seats, even after she finished eagle-par-birdie-birdie-par-birdie, an astounding 5-under over her final 6 holes, to come from two shots back on the second nine.
No seats. Kupcho stood during the trophy presentation, to the right of Augusta chairman Fred Ridley and the engraved silver cup she had won for her stellar play, and across from broadcaster Mike Tirico. Certainly, they wouldn’t break the laws of decorum and sit down while she remained standing, so all three stood.
But I wonder. Was standing the original plan, or was this a last-minute audible? After all, I’m almost positive Kupcho was the first Butler Cabin occupant to enter after being soaked with Masters-branded bottled water.
But let’s back up to before the Butler Cabin stand-off. Because this event, no matter how long overdue, was still historic.
Women played a golf tournament at Augusta National this weekend, and the world didn’t end. The pines remained soaring, the emerald turf lush, and the birdsong chipper (though of questionable authenticity). The sand still gleamed, Amen Corner judged harshly, and the second nine decided the winner, as it has for so many years.
Yet because of the competitors, these elite female amateurs, the afternoon took on the sheen of a waking dream, where the familiar and the foreign met in odd, yet unexplainably satisfying ways.
The white-jumpsuited caddies toting vivid, college-branded stand bags. The galleries of patrons sometimes standing only one or two deep, a scene usually reserved for practice rounds and untelevised pairings. Tee boxes freed from their “Tiger-proof” shackles, sitting closer to their original locations. Cameras inside the ropes and following groups from greens to tees, offering glimpses of Augusta’s offstage corners. Runner-up Maria Fassi’s fingers taped like Tiger’s, and her ponytail hanging past her right shoulder, unmoving, as a robust golf swing unfurled around it.
And a word about Fassi, a University of Arkansas senior hailing from Mexico, she of the megawatt smile and emotional temperament. I can’t say I’ve watched any women’s college golf, but I can say with certainty that she will be a star, based solely on what I saw today.
Hell, Fassi could be a star even if her prodigious golf talent deserted her tomorrow. She’s got a rambunctious demeanor that’s absolutely made for the big stage, with gestures and follow-throughs that let the viewer know exactly how she feels. After saving par from jail way right on 15, she implored the crowd to get louder, and they responded with a trademark Augusta roar. In another event quirk, her personal cheering section (Vamos, Maria!) came through crystal clear on the telecast. But Fassi’s biggest asset may just be her mental strength.
Fassi and Kupcho played in the final pairing, and by the time they came to the 13th hole, it was essentially match play, with Fassi at -7, Kupcho two back, and their closest competitor at -1. Both players were absolutely striping the ball, their draw-biased shot shapes a perfect match for Augusta’s dogleg left holes. Unfortunately for Fassi, Kupcho pulled off the shot of the tournament from over 200 yards on Alister MacKenzie’s famed short par 5.
Kupcho made eagle to Fassi’s par, and suddenly, things were all tied up. Rather than sink from the moment, Fassi stepped up and made birdie on the treacherous and bunkerless par-4 14th, going right back on top.
Look at the fire! Oh, did we mention this was Fassi’s fifth birdie through 14 holes, in her first competitive round at Augusta?
But then, that drive into the right-hand trees at 15. Par was a terrific score from there, but her competitor had that hybrid in her hands again, and she was feeling it.
That effort left Kupcho with a tap-in birdie 4, and she followed it up with a dart on 16 for another birdie, a steady par on 17, and an unnecessary but totally kickass bomb to close it out on 18. Fassi took each punch in stride and fought gamely to the last, nuking a desperate drive from 18 tee into the left fairway bunker, then doing all she could to advance the ball from there like a batter fighting off a two-strike cutter on the hands.
Fassi’s mental fortitude and both players’ incredible sportsmanship were on display throughout the afternoon. They congratulated each other, walked together from the tee box to their drives (which often sat less than 20 feet apart in the fairway), and shared a long embrace after Kupcho holed out on 18. The lasting memory I’ll take, though, was the walk that both Maria Fassi and Jennifer Kupcho made up to 18 green, surrounded by patrons and buoyed on by the swell of applause and cheers. The players walked together, nearly stride for stride, up to the putting surface. Fassi congratulated Kupcho and put her hands to her heart, thanking the crowd for their support, and showing her gratitude for being part of the moment.
Then she turned on her heel and walked away. Back down the fairway, some 30 yards below the left front bunker, where her approach shot had come to rest. She calmly gathered herself amid the deafening silence and pitched up to a spot where, come a week from now when the greens are a touch slicker, her ball would have trundled back down to within ten feet off that right-hand slope. She two-putted for what can only be termed as a gutsy bogey, and when Kupcho’s putt dropped, the scorecard cruelly showed that Fassi had been beaten by four shots.
In her post-round interview, Fassi said all the right things, and seemed to genuinely mean them. She mentioned that she couldn’t even remember how many birdies the two had made between them (10, including Kupcho’s eagle), and that she looked forward to competing with Kupcho for a long time to come. I defy anyone to lose six shots in six holes, in any competition, and come out looking like a better competitor than Maria Fassi.
And of course, we can’t neglect the champion. In 2017, Jennifer Kupcho had a two shot lead on the penultimate hole of the NCAA National Championship. Then she rinsed her tee shot, made triple, and lost by one. The next year, she entered the final round with a one-shot lead, played lights-out, and rebounded from the heartbreak to win it all. She was the favorite coming into the event, and her stone-cold killer instinct down the stretch separated her from Maria Fassi when it counted.
And it sounds like she would have started her birdie barrage earlier, but for a migraine.
At the risk of being melodramatic, that kind of effort shouldn’t be possible. Augusta is recognized as one of the world’s most challenging golf courses, mostly for its ridiculously undulating greens. Kupcho essentially was putting blind for three holes and kept the ship upright long enough for the blurred vision to fade, and the birdies to start dropping.
And drop they did, just like every year, when someone makes a second nine charge. The roars came sweeping through the pines, culminating as Kupcho’s final birdie found paydirt. Former champions greeted the newest member of the winner’s circle, though in this case it was four legends of the women’s game (Lorena Ochoa, Se Ri Pak, Annika Sorenstam, and Nancy Lopez) and only one Masters winner (Bubba Watson). But then a new group greeted Jennifer, a crew that has been with her as she’s risen through the ranks to become the world’s top-ranked female amateur. And as the Wake Forest Demon Deacons rushed in to shower Kupcho with water and crush her into a team hug, I wonder if the green jackets in Butler Cabin looked nervously at their leather upholstered chairs. Perhaps they hadn’t bargained on their precious club hosting this level of exuberance. But they better get used to it.