CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA | She has the polish and, at least from early indications, the game. Maria Fassi, the fiery athlete from Pachuca, Mexico, fresh off her NCAA individual championship title last week in Arkansas, spent her second day as a professional golfer prepping like a veteran for the U.S. Women’s Open. On Tuesday, Fassi played nine holes early (Monday was an 18-hole day) and then went to the short-game area at the Country Club of Charleston, where she spent 45 minutes hitting chips, pitches and bunker shots – shots she will need to compete, not just this week but every time she tees it up in the coming months.
She was poised and focused, with just a hint of swagger in her carriage. If you didn’t know she was a golfer, you would look at Fassi’s athletic build and assume she was a competitive swimmer or one of those freakish athletes on American Ninja Warrior. Wearing the aviator sunglasses that introduced her to the world at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, where she was the runner-up, Fassi walked like a player who knew she was a favorite to win.
Much of that straight-backed strut stemmed from the fact that she has yet to hit a shot for money. Fassi and Jennifer Kupcho, the winner of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur who is also making her pro debut this week, will do that together off the first tee at Country Club of Charleston at 8:28 on Thursday morning, alongside amateur Sierra Brooks from the University of Florida.
“There were a few rumors that Maria and I would get paired together,” Kupcho said. “So to see it come out and to also get to play with Sierra Brooks, we’re all good friends. It’s going to be just like we were in college. So I think it will actually really relax us and let us have a lot of fun. I think everyone, all the fans, all the world, wanted to see Maria and me play together again. I think a lot of people thought we were just putting on an act (in Augusta). They’ll really see that’s how Maria and I play with each other, no matter how we’re playing or anything. So I think it will be great to show that to the world.
“Obviously, any pairing is great. Nelly Korda is great. Lexi Thompson. Everyone.”
Fassi talked about fun as well. “I’m excited,” she said of making her professional debut in a major championship. “It’s only been a couple of days (since turning pro) but it’s been nice seeing the USGA and LPGA staff welcoming me and being helpful to me and my friends. I’m just out here having fun. I think if I continue to do that, the golf is going to take care of itself. I’m also being mindful of my ‘Why:’ Why I started playing and why I’ve wanted to be on the LPGA. It’s not for the money; it’s not for the fame; it’s just for the love of the game. If I stay true to that, money will come and I’ll be up there. If I stay true to myself and stick to my process, as I’ve done for 14 years, then it will be good.”
Unfortunately, hope is not a strategy. It’s hard to say so without coming off as crass, but the realities of professional life will no doubt hit these players at some point this year.
That thinking might last through the first double bogey, but after the second or third, when Fassi and Kupcho look at their caddies and realize that they have a payroll to make whether or not they cash a check; when these young women look at their schedules and realize that they have a lot to accomplish in a relatively short window if they want to retain their LPGA status; when they hit that first squirrelly shot and hear the gallery gasp as if to say, “A pro did that?” – that’s when the two newly minted pros will learn that fun is the golf you play with your college buddies, with a cooler and a one-heckle-per-nine side bet.
How each of them will handle that first tournament as a pro where they question all their decisions; question whether or not they really belong; question everything they have worked for: that is a known unknown. Everyone knows the day is coming. That’s the “known” part. The “unknown” is how they will respond, whether they will climb out of the hole of their own making or keep digging.
Other known unknowns include how much they will actually get to ply their trade in the coming months. “I’ll play as much as I can,” Fassi said. “I’m playing next week at ShopRite (LPGA Classic). Then, with the NCAA (victory), I got into (the Walmart NW) Arkansas (Championship) and the Marathon (Classic). And I’ll be playing Evian. Hopefully I can play my way into the British Open.
“Hopefully I can get higher on the priority list, too, and get into some events,” Fassi said. “But I don’t want to beat myself up. I’ll take what comes and I’ll take some weeks off. We’ll see what happens.”
Indeed we will. Unfortunately, hope is not a strategy. It’s hard to say so without coming off as crass, but the realities of professional life will no doubt hit these players at some point this year. Whether or not they realize that and have planned for it is another known unknown.
“I have talked to Lauren (Stephenson) and Kristen (Gillman),” Fassi said, referencing two other LPGA rookies. “They’re my age. And I’ve talked to some older players as well. They’ve all been super helpful.”
Hopefully those players have prepared Fassi and Kupcho for the inevitable pitfalls of life as a pro – the road weariness, the exhaustion, the financial stress. Known unknowns.
Fassi has an agent, Carlos Rodriguez at Impact Point, the same group that manages Sergio García, Paul Casey and Louis Oosthuizen among others. She’s already the lead figure on the organization’s website.
Kupcho is still relying on family. “I have not talked or anything to an agent yet, just because there were so many NCAA rules that I wasn’t really allowed to talk to anyone or anything,” she said. “I’m in the process of signing a couple of deals. It’s kind of been a family thing the whole time.”
With that, both players skipped back to the clubhouse, friends who shared a special connection as amateurs, but who will compete against each other for their livelihoods starting Thursday. Everyone will be watching to see if the magic bond between them continues. For now, it’s yet another known unknown.
Maria Fassi, seen during last year’s Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, will have much to ponder as her professional career begins. Photo: Drew Hallowell, Getty Images
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