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Posted April 5, 2019, 7:10 pm
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Stage shifts to Augusta National for final round of Women's Amateur

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    The first group to tee off, Jennifer Kupcho, Haylee Harford and Kaleigh Telfer, walk up the #1 fairway during practice for the Augusta National Women's Amateur at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., Friday April 5, 2019. [MICHAEL HOLAHAN/THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE]

The Augusta National Women’s Amateur preliminaries are over. After two rounds in Columbia County that trimmed the 72-player field to the top 30, followed by a practice round Friday, the main event, nearly a year in the making, is here.

The final round of the inaugural 54-hole event will take place Saturday at Augusta National Golf Club, where women will play competitively for the first time since the course opened in December 1932.

Former LPGA Tour stars and World Golf Hall of Famers Si Ri Pak, Lorena Ochoa, Nancy Lopez and Annika Sorenstam will hit ceremonial tee shots, in that order, beginning at approximately 7:45 a.m., followed by the first group of the day at 8.

The final pairing, of leader Jennifer Kupcho and Mexico’s Maria Fassi, who is one shot back, will go off at 10:20 a.m.

It wasn’t until 2012 that Augusta National Golf Club admitted its first female members, and now 30 of the best women amateurs, representing 15 countries, will make more history at the home of the Masters Tournament.

“It’s just such a great moment in golf for women amateurs to be able to have this opportunity,” Lopez said Friday. “I know when they announced it last year, I just sat there for awhile and went, ‘wow, this is awesome.’ I had chills wishing I could be an amateur again so I could come and play in the event this year.”

Kupcho, the No. 1-ranked women’s amateur who is a senior at Wake Forest, carries the one-shot lead into the final round after shooting 68-71 at Champions Retreat Golf Club in Evans on Wednesday and Thursday. Fassi, who like Kupcho is 21 years old and has already earned her LPGA Tour card for 2019, shot 70-70. Fassi is ranked No. 9 in women’s amateur golf.

Three players – Pimnipa Panthong, Sierra Brooks and Kaitlyn Papp – are two shots off the lead.

Kupcho and Fassi, who are close friends, know they will have to take matters into their own hands and try to go low if they expect to win.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of birdies out there, so just go out there and shoot at pins and hopefully make some putts,” Kupcho said Friday after her practice round.

Being aggressive “is the way I play golf, and I don’t think I should change it,” Fassi said. “Of course, I’ll be smart on some of the holes, but I’ll try to just play my game as much as I can.”

Seventeen players are within six shots of the lead, so it could be a wide-open race for the trophy.

“It is going to be a battle out there, definitely,” Fassi said. “Not only with me and Jennifer, but like two or three groups behind us, as well. The top-10′s packed, and it’s going to be really fun to watch. I’m really excited for that.”

Northern Ireland’s Olivia Mehaffey, who shot 73-72, is one of eight players six shots off the lead. She thinks it could be a wild final round.

“It’s hard to know how much it’s going to change,” she said of Augusta National’s setup and condition. “If you get these greens fast, it’s going to be so tough. Obviously, with the pressure and the situation, I think someone who is behind can come back and win. Someone can just race up that leaderboard. The difference between 30th spot and first spot is nothing. I think all 30 players in reality are in contention.”

For most of the field, Friday was the first time they’d played Augusta National.

“That’s the thing: nobody really knows this golf course,” Mehaffey said. “The rookies (in the Masters) tend to struggle here. It’s one day at Augusta – you’ve had one day to practice. That’s why it’s anyone’s game. I think. You can learn as much as you can from one practice round but there are so many slopes, so many breaks you don’t know.”

Augusta National will play to a par of 72, just as it does for the Masters. The yardage will be much different, however. Instead of the 7,475 yards it could play at next week’s Masters, it will be between 6,300 and 6,400 yards for the Amateur.

“If you think it’s the first competitive women’s event here, so they are setting the bar,” Sorenstam said of the field. “But it’s interesting, they have nothing really to compare it with.”

Fassi is the longest hitter (she led the field at Champions Retreat with an average tee shot of 278.5 yards) and topped the field in scoring the par-5s at an average of 4.25 strokes. In Friday’s practice round, she hit two 6-irons and two 4-irons in the four par-5 holes with her second shots.

“She out-drives me by like 10 or 15 yards usually,” Kupcho said of Fassi, “and then every once in a while, I’ll out-drive her.”

Kupcho wouldn’t say what she shot Friday, but said she “played really well.”

She’ll have Augusta National caddie Brian Murphy, who caddied for her in the fall on a visit to Augusta National and again Friday, on her bag. Kupcho’s father Mike caddied for her at Champions Retreat.

On the putts “I would read it one way and he’s like, no, it’s definitely going the other way,” Kupcho said of Murphy’s knowledge of the greens. “I’d hit the putt and he was right. Just stuff like that, you’ve got to lean on a caddie for that.”

Fassi will have her coach as her caddie, as she did at Champions Retreat. But like all the players Friday, she was required to use an Augusta National caddie.

“I think today I got a lot of information,” Fassi said. “At times it got overwhelming to say the least. There are a lot of numbers and a lot of breaks my local caddie today was walking me through. I think for tomorrow, yes, I want to have all the information I can but at the same time I want to keep it simple and keep my targets specific and not be thinking about it much. Doing that for me is going to be quite important.”