Late eagle vaults Jennifer Kupcho to within one of Austin Ernst at LPGA Drive On
OCALA, Fla. – When Jennifer Kupcho got to the 18th tee on Saturday at Golden Ocala, she could feel an eagle coming on. For a brief (...)
OCALA, Fla. – When Jennifer Kupcho got to the 18th tee on Saturday at Golden Ocala, she could feel an eagle coming on. For a brief moment, it looked like Kupcho’s second shot into the par-5 18th might find the flagstick. Not that she was actually aiming there.
“When I got down there to the fairway, I definitely didn’t think it would be possible to get it close,” said Kupcho who had 215 yards to the hole. “And I was not aiming anywhere close to where my ball went, but it happened to go right at the pin and carried by a couple yards, carried the water by a couple yards, and ended up in a good spot.”
Kupcho curled in a 12-foot birdie putt to pull within one shot of Austin Ernst at the LPGA Drive On Championship.
Known for her par-5 heroics at Augusta National, Kupcho will have a chance to match the effort on Golden Ocala’s three tribute holes as the Sunday hole locations will be identical to what players face in the final round of the Masters. (The three holes are patterned after 12, 13, and 16.)
While Kupcho looks to breaks through with her first LPGA title, Ernst looks to collect her third. A patient Ernst shot 69 on a wintery day in Florida that brought a little of everything to get to 13 under par; Kupcho carded a 70 to get to 12 under. The pair have separated themselves from the field as the next trio sits six shots back at 7 under.
Sisters Jessica and Nelly Korda swept the first two events of the LPGA season. The last time Americans won the first three events of the year was 2007.
Ernst admittedly didn’t have her “best stuff” on Saturday but was pleased to still shoot under par.
“I couldn’t have that done that a few years ago,” she said. “I don’t think I would’ve been as patient as I was today. When the wind picked up on the back nine especially, we had a few longer shots than we’ve had and we had a few pins that were a little tougher to get to.”
Former Stanford standout Albane Valenzuela carded the day’s low round, 66, to take a share of third with fellow rookie Patty Tavatanakit and Jenny Coleman.
Valenzuela battled a slew of physical ailments in recent months including a nerve injury, an appendicitis and most recently, a bout with COVID-19. She’ll play in the final group on Sunday in Ocala alongside former NCAA champions Ernst and Kupcho.
“My expectations where a bit all over the place and definitely a huge disappointment,” said Valenzuela of 2020. “Overall there were so many things that I couldn’t control, being injured and having so many health injuries.
“For me 2021, even if we’re not out on of COVID, it’s a huge reset button for me. Just happy with where I am right now.”
Coleman, whose previous best finish on the LPGA was a tie for 26th, has her identical twin Kristin with her this week. Jenny finished third on the Symetra Tour money list to earn her LPGA card; Kristen still competes on the developmental circuit. The identical twins are each other’s coaches.
“I would say they’re a little bit different,” said Jenny when asked to compare their swing. “She has more of a flattening transition and mine is fairly more one-planed. A lot of people think we swing pretty similar because our setup and our finish is similar.”
Both Carlota Ciganda (75) and Nelly Korda (76) tumbled down the leaderboard on Saturday and are now eight and 10 shots back, respectively.
Ernst’s brother Drew has caddied for her since midway through her rookie year in 2013 and her father, Mark, director of operations at Cross Creek Plantation in Seneca, South Carolina, is her swing coach. Mark keeps an eye on Austin through television coverage when he can at work.
“On Thursday he said, ‘Hey, everything looks good,’ ” said Austin. “I’ll talk to him today. I didn’t hit it quite as well, but we’ll talk about it.”
Last year Mark noticed something in his daughter’s putting at the AIG Women’s British Open at Royal Troon. She put it in play immediately the next week and won in Arkansas.
“I think it does help having his eyes where he can see something,” said Austin, “whether it’s tempo-related or whatever it is, just a quick fix.”