OCALA, FLORIDA | She got on a tear early. After three opening pars to start the Drive On Championship presented by Volvik, Jennifer Kupcho went on a birdie barrage, reeling off four in a row and looking like she might open a wide first-round lead. Throw in the fact that two of the holes on the back nine at Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club are tributes of the 12th and 13th at Augusta National, site of Kupcho’s victory at the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur, and it was easy to imagine what Thursday morning might hold.
She played well, posting one more birdie and no bogeys for a 5-under 67, good enough for a share of the early lead with Nelly Korda and Austin Ernst. But Kupcho battled more than the golf course in the opening round. An old unwelcome friend came calling midway through the final nine.
“I actually ended up getting a migraine, so I was struggling through that, still am as it continues,” Kupcho said after the round, a look of familiar pain etched across her face. “I was just trying to get through that and really just focused on playing the best that I could with that on the back nine.”
The debilitating headaches remain a medical mystery. Some researchers point to genetic and environmental factors, while others insist that they come from the electrical interaction between the brain stem and the trigeminal nerve. Those who suffer have little desire to engage in such neurological debates. They just want a cure. Quickly, and as quietly as possible, please.
Fans of the game likely remember the final round of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur when Kupcho took a seat behind the ninth tee and put her head in her hands. At the time, no one knew what was happening. Kupcho had been battling with Maria Fassi in the final group and Fassi had made a charge at the eighth. Many viewers thought Kupcho was reacting emotionally to the state of the tournament.
When migraines hit, they feel like a construction crew running jackhammers inside the skull and Kupcho has trouble seeing out of her left eye. The fact that she was able to finish the back nine that day in Augusta and win the event in dramatic fashion was nothing short of a miracle.
Her 67 on Thursday in Ocala was equally impressive. She parred the Augusta replica holes and then birdied the 13th, a replica of the Road Hole at the Old Course in St Andrews. After that, she ground out one par after another, including on the par-5 18th where another issue crept up.
“I don't know what happened on the 18th. I kind of just started feeling numbness in my hand. I think I have a little bit of a stiff neck going on,” she said when asked about not going for the par-5 with her second shot when she only had 200 yards to the front of the green. “I’m going to go figure that (numbness) out. That's really it. Just came down to that. I stood over (the second shot) and I was like, ‘There is no way I can trust myself to hit the shot right now.’”
She understands the limitations migraines place on her. And she performs with remarkable precision despite the pain.
They come like criminals, without warning and bearing malicious intent. She had three during the offseason, which is more frequently than in years past. There is no warning, no rhyme or reason to when or why they will strike. And just as quickly, they are gone.
“It's pretty bad,” she said after the round. “Even right now everything is really blurry. I can't really see anything over to the left. So, yeah, it's definitely really hard. I pretty much just lean on my caddie a lot, just trust him and try to do the best that I can.
“Usually, the blurriness goes away within 45 minutes, but they kind of come on at any point,” Kupcho added. “I was standing over a shot and that's when it kicked in. I never really know.”
She said she would spend the rest of Thursday in a dark, quiet room with her eyes closed.
At least she has the draw in her favor. Kupcho tees off at 12:14 on Friday afternoon.