INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA | Leaders and leadership are two very different things. Leaders often inherit their roles or have the title given to them by virtue of their age or status – think His Royal Highness King Such-and-Such or the distinguished senior senator from state X.
Leadership, however, is forged by the fire. Whether you’re talking about sports, business, government, churches or military campaigns, there are those who carry the titles of leader and then there are those who lead. Sometimes it’s the same person. Many times it is not. A general might call the shots but it’s often the sergeants who inspire.
In team golf, which happens so rarely that we talk about it for months before and weeks after, leaders are those who bring together disparate interests and competing egos; who know and say the right words at the right time; who perform in ways that rally and who strike the perfect balance of confidence and humility.
The sorry aftermath and irresponsible dustup on the U.S. Ryder Cup team has shown us what leadership is not. But the day before the opening shots of the UL International Crown, American Jessica Korda has shown us what it can and should be. Playing in her first UL International Crown and her first professional team competition since the 2013 Solheim Cup in Colorado, Korda is the player striking the balance between keeping her teammates loose and focused. She is the one cracking jokes on the driving range, checking on her teammates, making sure that everyone is ready without creating any contrived rituals. No face painting or choreographed celebrations, no team dinner or strategy sessions on Wednesday night: just Korda chatting up her friends and preparing for four days of intense competition.
It’s a new role for Korda, who hasn’t won the number of events her talent suggests she could. She’s won five times, including a victory earlier this year in Thailand, but no less an expert than Paul Azinger has said, “Jessica has the tools to be in the Hall of Fame.”
The jaw surgery late last year that radically altered her appearance and eliminated the persistent migraines she suffered has also improved Korda’s attitude and demeanor. Never unpleasant, she used to be more reserved, like someone who was battling chronic pain. Now, she is an old friend who can’t wait to say hello.
Her game is better than ever as well. She came within a couple of pulled 4-irons and a missed 6-footer from winning the Evian Championship after tweaking her wrist. And she has looked better than any player in the field in practice leading up to the UL International Crown.
Korda doesn’t know she’s a leader. It’s not a role she sought and she would laugh if you told her she’d assumed it.
“I think we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do coming into this week,” she said when asked about whom on the team was taking charge. “We had talked before, so really nothing changed. It’s more of just us communicating, the four of us in a group chat. That’s really all it is.”
Really, it’s more than that. It’s Korda cracking jokes with Michelle Wie, with whom she is paired on Thursday against Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist and Caroline Hedwall. It’s taking aggressive lines on a difficult golf course without a whiff of indecision or fear. It’s rolling putts the perfect speed on some of the must undulating greens these players have ever played.
“It almost doesn’t feel like a team event because we don’t have 12 of us and there’s no alternate shot,” Korda told The Post on Wednesday as she pounded tee shots down the center of the fairways at Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea. “It’s important to just prepare like you do normally. We’re playing best-ball (four-ball) so there will be some strategy but it’ll be situational. You just take it as it comes depending on how you stand and how everybody’s playing.”
Confident and low key, engaged and humble, hungry and ready: Korda could conceivably change the conversation and earn the title of leader this week.