Chevron: Jennifer Kupcho holds 6-shot lead entering final round ever at Mission Hills

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Three years ago, when the Augusta National Women’s Amateur first became a disrupting force for the Chevron Championship and the LPGA, the winner in Georgia was Wake Forest’s Jennifer Kupcho. She was the 2018 NCAA Women’s Division I champion, and someone pegged to be a star when she turned pro.

This week at the Chevron event, Kupcho is an accomplished LPGA member with a Solheim Cup berth to her credit. She still has no LPGA title on her resume, though that could easily change Sunday.

As the Chevron Championship moves into its final round ever in the Coachella Valley on Sunday, the field will be chasing Kupcho for the chance to be the final golfer to celebrate a victory by leaping into Poppie’s Pond at Mission Hills Country Club.

Sparked by a run of four consecutive birdies on the front nine, Kupcho fired an 8-under 64 on Saturday to reach 16-under-par 200 and forge a six-shot lead heading into the finale at Mission Hills Country Club.

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Jennifer Kupcho smiles after putting on the 9th green on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course during round three of the Chevron Championship at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, on Saturday, April 2, 2022.

The numbers and records for Kupcho on the day were staggering. Her 16-under total sets a tournament 54-hole mark, two strokes better than Patty Tavatanakit last year and Pernilla Lindberg in 2018. The 64 tied Kupcho’s low round in an LPGA event.

Kupcho is threatening the tournament’s 72-hole scoring record of 19 under, set by Dottie Pepper in 1999. Her six-shot lead is short of the event’s 54-hole margin set by Karrie Webb in 2000. Kupcho is also trying to become the second player in two years to make the Chevron Championship not only her first major but her first LPGA win of any kind.

Tavatanakit won the 2021 title and is still in contention this year at 10 under, alone in second after a 2-under 70 on Saturday. Jessica Korda is alone in third at 9 under after a solid 67 on Saturday in a tournament where her sister finished in the top three the last three years. Nelly Korda is not in the tournament this year because of a blood clot in her arm.

Kupcho said the entire third round was a bit of a blur. The round was a vast difference from her second round, where she shot 70 with 14 pars to open her round.

“Everything was working. I think my putting is definitely the props,” Kupcho said. “I had it rolling well and you’ve got to make putts in a major.”

Entire game was on fire

But it wasn’t just Kupcho’s putter that was working, with the 2021 Solheim Cup member missing just one fairway and only three greens in the round.

“I hit the fairways and I hit the greens and was really just trying to put some putting strokes on them,” she said.

Korda’s 67 enabled her to pass numerous contenders who struggled on a calm and warm afternoon on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course, including second-round leader Hinoka Shibuno, who shot 77 on Saturday. But Korda knows sitting seven shots back to start the day that she’ll need help to win the final Chevron Championship in the desert.

“It’s a major, so you know the girls up front are going to be nervous, and we’re kind of chasing them down and they know that,” Korda said. “You always just kind of got to think that you have a chance no matter, and that’s kind of the mentality you got to go in there with.”

Tavatanakit initially declined to talk to the media after her round, but later said she played a solid round and wasn’t too disappointed to be six shots out of the lead.

“At the end of the day, I feel like I’m out here on tour,” Tavatanakit said. “This is my — counting third year, and my coach told me that you know how to play golf, so just go out there and play golf.”

Tavatanakit’s round featured six birdies but four bogeys, including bogeys on the 13th and 17th holes when Kupcho had slowed her own scoring. Tavatanakit also missed a six-foot eagle putt on the par-5 11th.

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Jessica Korda of the United States tees off on nine during round three of the Chevron Championship at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, Saturday, April 2, 2022.

Kupcho started the third round at 8 under, two shots behind Shibuno. After a par on the first hole, Kupcho birdied the easy par-5 second hole, then rolled in birdie putts of 15, 30, and 4 feet on the next three holes to reach 12 under and sole possession of the lead.

A birdie on the par-3 eighth gave her a 31 on the front nine. The back nine started just as hot with Kupcho making birdies on the 10th, 11th, and 12th, all from inside 10 feet.

The assault on par slowed with a bogey on the par-4 13th, the only green Kupcho missed in her round, followed by three consecutive pars. But a birdie on the par-3 17th pushed Kupcho to the 64. Only Tavatanakit’s birdie on the par-5 18th prevented Kupcho from a larger lead.

Kupcho, who missed just one fairway all day, said she hadn’t really felt a great round coming on Saturday and had set a score of 68 for the day in her head. She was relaxed to start the round because as she drove to the course she listened to the final round of this year’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

“I really was just coming out and playing this morning. I got to watch ANWA, so that was pretty cool, and just bring back those good memories,” Kupcho said.

Korda had four birdies in her first eight holes on her way to the 67 on a course she will miss when the tournament moves to Houston next year. Korda has finished fourth and sixth in the tournament in the last four years.

“I just like a lot of the layout. I love the grass. I don’t know, Palm Springs is so nice,” Korda said. “I’m definitely really sad that we’re leaving. It’s one of the golf courses you always look forward to coming back to because you know it, and the more that you know it the better you’re going to play out here.”