Fassi, Kupcho Take Patient Road to Pro Game May 31, 2019 | CHARLESTON, S.C. By Ron Sirak

Showing poise and talent, Maria Fassi (left) and Jennifer Kupcho are embracing the opportunity to make their pro debut. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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In this era of teen sensations in women’s golf, Jennifer Kupcho, 22, and Maria Fassi, 21, qualify as grizzled veterans. They’ve taken an old-school path to the professional ranks by completing four years of college. And in their pro debut this week at the U.S. Women’s Open they are giving every indication that the road increasingly less traveled by talented youngsters was the right one for them.

With play halted Friday as thunderstorms slashed across James Island, both Kupcho and Fassi, who were playing together, were inside the cut line with 10 holes to play. Kupcho was at 1 over par after opening with a 71 and Fassi was 2 over following a first-round 72. Both were strong efforts on a demanding Country Club of Charleston.  

The road Kupcho and Fassi took to get here was not an expressway through practice ranges and putting greens but rather a scenic route that included teammates and competitions, to be sure, but also friends away from the game and classrooms where more than yardage books were studied.

Asked what it felt like to have her college career at Wake Forest end with a loss in the NCAA team finals, Kupcho, 22, gave a very telling answer. “I think losing hurt,” she said, “but I think also the fact that I had to say goodbye to my whole team that night is where it hit. Losing is losing. So it was really just leaving my team that took the most time.”

And when Fassi, 21, speaks of how the University of Arkansas prepared her to compete as a pro, she painted a very complete picture. “I think everything, in every tournament that I've played until today, has definitely helped me mentally, physically, golf-wise, for sure,” she said. “They all kind of have worked together to get me ready.”

Beth Daniel and Meg Mallon come from an era when it was more common for LPGA players to attend college. Daniel played on a national champion Furman University team in 1976 that included fellow World Golf Hall of Fame member Betsy King and Mallon was Big Ten individual runner-up in 1985 while at Ohio State.

“You mature both physically and emotionally during four years of college,” Daniel said Friday at the host club, where she learned the game as a child. “I grew an inch in college but I also grew in so many other ways. You are a different person when you come out of college than when you went in. College gets you ready for life.”

Mallon said Kupcho and Fassi, who won the last two NCAA individual titles (Kupcho in 2018, Fassi in 2019), not only benefited from the life experiences of college but also enhanced their commercial potential. “Look what it did for them in terms of exposure at Augusta and in the NCAAs,” Mallon said. “Because of their college notoriety they were on TV and then were able to ease into the pro ranks. I strongly support the idea of going to four years of college.”

Then Mallon offered a cautionary tale from her experiences as a player during a period when the LPGA transitioned to younger players. “If the parents are out there with you when you are 18 or younger, they are going to still be with you when you are 30,” she said.

Mallon said a young teenager needs a parent traveling with her, often creating a bond that becomes hard to break. She said that’s a reason it might be wise to wait until turning pro.

Stacy Lewis was 23 before she turned pro, both because she earned a degree at the University of Arkansas and because she struggled with scoliosis as a child, an affliction that delayed her college career when it required surgery.

When Lewis was reminded that her father, Dale, once said: “Sometimes it’s better when you don’t get old at a young age,” she nodded with a knowing smile. Lewis, 34, who was granted a special exemption into the Women’s Open after giving birth in October, speaks of bigger things than birdies and bogeys when asked about Kupcho and Fassi.

“The experiences they had with their teammates, the experiences they had with their friends, are the things you can’t replace,” Lewis said. “They also had experience winning. They were in no rush to get into it and that probably makes them better prepared.”

The Women’s Open is a championship where amateurs who earn their way in can gain experience against the pros. There are 19 teenagers in the field, including 14-year-old Alexa Pano, and 26 amateurs overall. One of them, Gina Kim, 19, a sophomore at Duke, goes into the weekend just one stroke behind leader Jessica Korda, an indication of the depth of young talent in women’s golf.

When asked what she learned from college golf, Kupcho said: “Probably resiliency, Just to keep fighting, no matter what.” Said Fassi, playing in her ninth USGA championship: “I've been dreaming about this for 14 years. There's not a better event to make my professional debut than the U.S. Open. It’s kind of crazy how just time flew by.”

Time may have flown by, but those four years in college appear to have been time well spent for both Kupcho and Fassi, a road well taken.

Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.

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