GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Jennifer Kupcho won a trophy at the first golf tournament she ever competed in.
The next tournament she played, the then 7-year-old Kupcho performed poorly and didn’t get a trophy.
To go home empty handed was a shock for someone used to participation trophies being presented in every youth sport.
“I was expecting a trophy, and I didn’t get one,” said Kupcho, who just turned pro this month. “I think that switch of you actually have to play good in (golf to get recognition) is what really drew me into the game. That’s why I ended up taking it up.”
Kupcho is one of several young players to watch when the $1.75 million, 54-hole ShopRite LPGA Classic is held Friday-Sunday on the Bay Course at Seaview Resort. Annie Park is the defending champion.
In addition to the 22-year-old Kupcho, other young players to follow this weekend include rookie Maria Fassi and amateur Virginia Elena Carta.
“I think it’s nice to just have the vibe of a professional event such as the ShopRite,” Carta said. “Just being around the professional players and just practicing with them on the putting green or on the driving range, it’s just a lot of fun.”
Kupcho, who grew up in Colorado, won the 2018 NCAA individual championship while a Wake Forest junior. Fassi, a Mexican native who just finished her senior season at the University of Arkansas, won the 2019 NCAA individual championship last month.
Kupcho and Fassi captured the attention of the golf world in April when they finished first and second, respectively, at the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur, which was held at the site of the Master’s Tournament. Kupcho and Fassi became even more linked when they made their pro debuts at last week’s U.S. Women’s Open. Fassi, 21, finished tied for 12th, while Kupcho was tied for 62nd.
Meanwhile, Carta, 22, just graduated from Duke. The Italian native won the 2016 NCAA individual championship as a freshman and helped the Blue Devils win the NCAA team championship last month.
The Classic began in 1986 and has been held every year since except for a three-year gap from 2007-09 when it disappeared because of a dispute over dates between the LPGA and former Classic organizers.
Throughout its history, the Classic has featured some of the LPGA’s best-known players as amateurs or rookies.
Michele Wie and Paula Creamer played the Classic as amateurs in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Lexi Thompson made her pro debut as a 15-year-old in 2010. Brooke Henderson played as a rookie in 2015.
The Classic comes at the end of the high school and college season and is held at the perfect time for players who just turned pro, or for amateurs who want to test themselves in a professional event.
While the Classic has been a spot for many young players to make their LPGA debuts, the tournament has not been kind to inexperienced players. Only one rookie — Seon Hwa Lee in 2006 — has won the event. One reason young players have struggled here is the 6,197-yard, par-71 Bay Course. The links-style layout is rare on the LPGA tour. The undulating greens are small and tough to read.
The Classic puts a premium on aggressive play. It’s one of the few 54-hole events left on the LPGA Tour. Golfers don’t have much time to recover from a bad round. The Bay Course is vulnerable to birdies, especially on three its par-5 holes. The ShopRite champion has shot 11-under par or better in seven of the nine years since the tournament returned in 2010.
The Classic begins at 7:15 a.m. Friday with action from the first and 10th tees. The field of 144 players features five of the world’s top-10 players, including No. 4 Thompson, No. 6 Jeongeun Lee6 (last week’s U.S. Women’s Open winner) and No. 9 Henderson.
The field also features past Classic champions Anna Nordqvist and Stacy Lewis. The Golf Channel will televise all three rounds.
The LPGA, like every other professional sports league, seems to be always on the look out for the next great player or players to pump energy into the sport.
Carta on Thursday recalled being at the Women’s British Open as a child and wanting an autographed golf ball from now-retired LPGA great Lorena Ochoa.
Now, it’s the turn of Kupcho, Fassi and Carta to see what kind of excitement they can create.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that,” Kupcho said. “After going to school and having a lot of schoolwork, it is nice to be out here on Tour and be able to focus on my weaknesses and really what I need to do to get my game to that level.”