June 22 - 27, 2021 Atlanta Athletic Club, Johns Creek, GA
Walmart NW Arkansas Championship - Round Two

NEWTOWN SQUARE, PA – Who says that it’s always sunny in Philadelphia? Friday morning at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship delivered gray skies and temps in the 50s, which in turn had players clad in wool beanies and warm mittens just to maintain any feeling in their hands.

Somebody needed to step in and heat up the place, and that turned out to be the two standouts of the day, each basking in incredible rounds of 5-under 65. Jennifer Kupcho, a 23-year-old seeking her first LPGA victory, was first to post, going bogey-free. And as the sun dipped below the treelike, as darkness crept in and temperatures again began to fall, South Korea’s Sei Young Kim carried the late shift.

Kim, 27, considered by many observers to be the best LPGA player without a major – she owns 10 LPGA victories and is nearing $9 million in career earnings – played her final nine holes (front side) at Aronimink Golf Club in 6-under-par 29, tying the nine-hole KPMG tournament mark previously held by Australians Karrie Webb (2001) and Sarah Kemp (2011). Kim’s final birdie of the day (her seventh) at the ninth lifted her to 65 and a leading 36-hole total of 4-under 136. That outpaces Kupcho and three others – American Danielle Kang (69), Spain’s Carlota Ciganda (69) and Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist (68) – by a shot heading into the weekend. 

Kim utilized a translator to answer questions from the media after her round, but did not require one to answer one question posed in English. Do you feel ready to win a major? Kim was asked. She smiled and nodded in the affirmative. For good measure, in Korean she added, “It’s always been my goal.”

Kim teed off on No. 10 and made the turn in 1 over. Nothing special. She then birdied the difficult par-4 first hole before going on a tear beginning at the par-4 fourth. She would birdie four consecutive holes (10 feet, 3 feet, 10 feet, 3 feet) and then add one for good measure at the par-5 ninth. She was in the proverbial zone, even if most players getting battered at arduous Aronimink this week never entertained that such a thing were even possible.

“I was in a good momentum so I just wanted to ride on that,” Kim said.

As players struggled to make pars and avoid big numbers on another pretty demanding day, Kupcho, a decorated amateur who has yet to win in two seasons on the LPGA, was sauntering along in her own little alternate universe. Five birdies, no bogeys, a 5-under 65, and surprisingly to her, a temporary share of the lead before Kim’s torrid finish.

There were 12 players below par when the day began, and by nightfall, one more in the red had been added. But as Aronimink continues to firm up, that number could pare significantly over the weekend.

Ciganda, another top player seeking her first major, had a chance to share the lead but three-putted for par from just beyond the green surface at the ninth. She had several good looks over her closing nine but could not get a birdie to fall. She said she has been inspired having watched countryman Sergio Garcia win again last weekend, and her game is in good shape. 

“I think I am right there. I like tough courses. I like when it's playing hard, so it's a good week for me,” Ciganda said. “I love the course. It really suits my eye with the fairways and the greens. I mean, I think it's long and tough … I think we should play more courses like this one.”

Kupcho’s round was a clinical ballstriking display; she didn’t miss a single green in regulation. It was about as stress-free a round as one could piece together at Aronimink, even if Kupcho, the one who authored it, didn’t particularly view it that way.

“Honestly,” Kupcho said, “I was still really stressed. I want to play good so badly that it just makes me want to hit good shots, and that’s obviously stressful.”

Kupcho had been playing so badly after the LPGA’s long break – a tie for 60th and four missed cuts to start the restart – that she shook things out by firing her caddie and putting her old Ping irons back into the bag. Change can be good. She was runner-up at the ShopRite LPGA Classic a week ago, even if she didn’t feel all that comfortable there, either.

Also at 3 under is Kang, a former KPMG Women’s PGA champion who is ranked third in the world, and the highest-ranked player still in this week’s field. Jin Young Ko of Korea has not played in 2020, staying at home during the Covid-19 pandemic, and No. 2 Nelly Korda withdrew early on Friday before the second round, stating that her back did not feel right. Kang followed an opening 68 with a steady 69, once again doing most of her damage on Aronimink’s second nine, which she has played to the tune of 5 under over two rounds.

“I really, truly enjoy the challenge,” said Kang, who has won twice since the LPGA restarted its season in June. “It's difficult. Some days you succeed and some days you fail, and I think that's the beauty of a challenging golf course, and Aronimink itself, it's just bringing a lot of challenges. It's fun.” 

Friday wasn’t overly windy and the course didn’t play overly long, but it still was difficult to find birdies. It was a day just to hang in there, and hang around. The cut (top 70 and ties) fell at 6-over 146.

Kupcho, an NCAA individual champion at Wake Forest who also won the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur in 2019, hits it a long way and used that to her advantage on Friday. Starting her morning at 2 over, she got to level par with birdies at 11 (from 35 feet) and 14, then turned and shot 3-under 32 on the front nine. At the par-4 sixth, an uphill putt from 15 feet actually went in the hole, popped up for air, and then tumbled back in.

“That putt was crazy,” she said, “like it’s a good thing it hit the hole because it was going a long ways (past).” For all her power, she showed a deft touch at her final hole, the 522-yard par-5 ninth, smashing a 3-wood just over the green from 245 yards, then pitching downhill to 3 feet for one last birdie.

“Going into last week, I was not prepared, like I felt completely unprepared, and honestly, I felt the same coming into this week,” Kupcho said. She played only nine practice holes one day and nine another, so she still is getting familiar with the golf course.

On Friday, Kupcho and Aronimink appeared to be old friends. The day very much belonged to Kupcho, and to Kim, both with brilliant performances. Aronimink may have its say over the weekend.

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