You could always see the fire in her eyes, even when she still had braces on her teeth. Nelly Korda qualified to play in the 2013 U.S. Women’s Open at Sebonack as a 14-year-old. She made the cut along with a couple of other slightly older amateurs named Lydia Ko and Brooke Henderson before finishing tied for 64th, limping in with a 79-81 weekend.
That entire crop of teenagers played better on the Southampton shore than former world No. 1s Yani Tseng and Se Ri Pak and major champions (past and future) Suzann Petterson and Pernilla Lindberg. But of the amateurs left on that weekend six summers ago (a group that also included Doris Chen), Nelly might have been the most overlooked. The only reasons to watch her were the striking resemblance she had to her older sister, Jessica, who had joined the LPGA in 2011, and the fact that, even at 14 with a mouth full of orthodontia, she had the look. That Tiger Woods-type stare, like the tip of a welding torch. Eyes of a killer. Or a future champion.
“I don’t know what it is about Nelly but I’ve always seen something in her that made me believe that she was going to be really something,” said Hall of Famer Judy Rankin. “She always seemed to be a bit more serious. Jessica always looked, to me at least, to have more fun and enjoy life a little more. But Nelly had that look about her for as long as I can remember.”
Nelly came up with that ubiquitous five-year-younger-than-sis chip on her shoulder. In a family full of sportspeople, Jessica always excelled. Even from the age of 8 when she took her first golf lesson, it was obvious that Jessica had inherited the best athletic traits of both parents, Petr and Regina, who were world-class tennis professionals. She was tall, strong and gifted with great hand speed and coordination. Nelly would grow into all those things as well. But when Jessica won her first LPGA title, the 2012 Women’s Australian Open, little sister was a freshman in high school.
As they grew physically similar, differences became obvious. Walk a few holes of practice with Jessica and you’ll hear a dozen stories, get a couple of restaurant reviews and learn at least one new joke. She’s bright, curious, fun and engaging, just like her mother.
Nelly might go three holes without saying a word to anyone but her caddie. She isn’t rude – far from it – and outside the ropes she is as talkative as anyone. But in her office, she is her father’s daughter. Steely and a little mean. Even Nelly’s walk is more intense. Jessica saunters. Nelly marches.
They both benefit from great parenting. Far from the spoiled sires of professional athletes, the Korda kids (including the youngest sibling, Sebastian, a world-class junior tennis player) are humble and appreciative. “Our parents drilled into us what it was like growing up under communism (in the former Czechoslovakia),” Jessica said. “They never let us forget how incredibly fortunate we are to live where we live and do what we do.”
“All the great ones have another level, something they can rely on that elevates their games when they’re close (to the lead),” Rankin said. “I see that in Nelly.” – Judy Rankin
“I guess I was that annoying little sister who had to do everything her older sister did,” Nelly said. “I was (always) right beside her, always tagging along. We kind of bonded playing golf together. I just loved being around her.”
And, when the time came, Nelly loved beating her.
“Any professional golfer will tell you their two top goals are to win a major championship and to become the No. 1 player in the world,” Nelly said. “But I’m not going to put too much pressure on myself. We’re fortunate to have grown up around professional sports and to have parents who have so much knowledge and experience. They let us pick their brains a bit.”
“All the great ones have another level, something they can rely on that elevates their games when they’re close (to the lead),” Rankin said. “I see that in Nelly.”
So far this year, Nelly has a victory, a second, a third, a seventh and a 10th. Prior to the ANA Inspiration (where she finished a disappointing T52) she led in almost every major statistical category, including money and Race to the CME Globe points. Now she is second in those two categories behind two-time winner and world No. 1 Jin Young Ko.
That doesn’t sit well. During Masters week, while the rest of the world was watching Tiger Woods make history, Korda was grinding away on her game. “I just practiced really a lot and played out in Palm Springs (Calif.),” she said. “Stayed with a couple friends out there. (At one point) I needed to go work out and I had no motivation. Then I just thought of Tiger. I thought, I wonder if he would be in this position. Probably not. I’m going to go work out. What Would Tiger Do. Yeah, WWTD.”
Korda shot 63-68 the first two rounds of this week’s Lotte Championship in Hawaii. She leads the tour in birdies, is second in greens in regulation, third in scoring average, and is the top-ranked American in the women’s game.
But when asked about her goals, she shook her head and said, “Keep my head down and keep working hard.”
She was then asked if she remembered seeing Tiger win his first major, the 1997 Masters.
“Only on video,” she said, the steel returning to her gaze. “I wasn’t born yet.”
That put it all into perspective.
Nelly Korda waits her turn on the ninth green during the second round of the Lotte Championship. Photo: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images
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