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Kupcho, Lee share early lead in last major at Mission Hills

Jennifer Kupcho and Minjee Lee shared the lead in The Chevron Championship at 6-under 66 after morning play Thursday in the first round of the major tournament's final edition at Mission Hills.

Defending champion Patty Tavatanakit and 2013 winner Inbee Park were among the afternoon starters in the event ending a half-century run in the mountain-framed desert oasis.

Unable to find a sponsor willing to remain at Mission Hills, the tournament that started in 1972 as the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winner’s Circle and became a major in 1983 is shifting to Houston next year under a six-year deal with Chevron.

Minjee Lee tees off on the sixth hole during the Chevron Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 31, 2022, in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (AP PhotoMarcio Jose Sanchez)

Kupcho birdied Nos. 11-14 in sunny and calm conditions to get to 8 under, then bogeyed the next two holes. She birdied four of the first five holes and finished with nine birdies and three bogeys.

“I really like the layout of this golf course, the beautiful shape that it’s in every year," Kupcho said. "It always is so fun to be here, so just taking advantage of how much I like the course and the atmosphere.”

Winless on the LPGA Tour, the 24-year-old from Colorado won the 2018 NCAA individual title for Wake Forest and took the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur the following year. She arrived at Mission Hills early after missing the cut last week at Aviara in Carlsbad.

Minjee Lee tees off on the fifth hole during the Chevron Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 31, 2022, in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (AP PhotoMarcio Jose Sanchez)

“Honestly I just don’t like that course last week,” Kupcho said. “It doesn’t set up for my eye, so I really didn’t think much of it. I just used the two days that I did have on the weekend to come here and practice.”

Lee birdied all four par 5s in a bogey-free round.

“It was perfect,” Lee said. “Not like a breath of wind when we played. Maybe just a tiny bit. But conditions are great. Putting greens are rolling real nice. I don’t think you can get better than that.”

Minjee Lee watches her putt on the fifth hole during the Chevron Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 31, 2022, in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (AP PhotoMarcio Jose Sanchez)

The 25-year-old Australian, ranked fourth in the world, won the Evian Championship last summer for her first major title and sixth LPGA Tour victory.

“I know I have one under my belt, but I do want a little bit more,” Lee said. “I just think I have a little bit more belief in myself and my game so I can be a little bit more comfortable just hitting the shots that I choose.”

Anna Nordqvist, Caroline Masson and Pajaree Anannarukarn were tied for third at 68, and 2014 winner Lexi Thompson was another stroke back with Lauren Stephenson.

Jennifer Kupcho hits out of bunker on the 16th hole during the Chevron Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 31, 2022, in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (AP PhotoMarcio Jose Sanchez)

Thompson marveled at the conditions on the course she first played as a 14-year-old amateur.

“I’ve never seen it this good," Thompson said. “It always surprises me every year. It’s always better. But the greens are amazing. I’m one to putt and usually aim at things along the way, and there is just not an imperfection on greens to aim at. It’s a good problem.”

Thompson played alongside top-ranked Jin Young Ko, the 2019 winner who failed to make a birdie in a 74 that ended her streak of under-par rounds at 34.

Jennifer Kupcho reacts to missing a putt o the 17th hole during the Chevron Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 31, 2022, in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (AP PhotoMarcio Jose Sanchez)

“I was hitting lots of great shots, but my putting wasn’t good on the green,” Ko said. “I couldn’t see the break as much or speed, everything was wrong. I don’t know what happened.”

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Lexi Thompson tees off on the 16th hole during the Chevron Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 31, 2022, in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (AP PhotoMarcio Jose Sanchez)

Lexi Thompson tees off on the 14th hole during the Chevron Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 31, 2022, in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (AP PhotoMarcio Jose Sanchez)

Jessica Korda tees off on the 17th hole during the Chevron Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 31, 2022, in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (AP PhotoMarcio Jose Sanchez)

Stacy Lewis tees off on the 14th hole during the Chevron Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 31, 2022, in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (AP PhotoMarcio Jose Sanchez)

Jin Young Ko tees off on the 16th hole during the Chevron Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 31, 2022, in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (AP PhotoMarcio Jose Sanchez)