NAPLES, FLORIDA | “Nelly’s not doing much, is she?”
Judy Rankin asked that question of Terry Gannon and Cristie Kerr, as well as the production team that is always crammed into the cramped quarters of the broadcast booth. It was a commercial break during the first-round Golf Channel broadcast of the CME Group Tour Championship, a time for those commenting on the tournament to take a look at the leaderboard and decide what to say next.
“No, she’s 1 under,” Kerr said. At the time the lead was 5 under, soon to go to 7 under when Sei Young Kim eagled the 17th at Tiburón Golf Club. Nelly Korda, the world’s third-ranked player, top-ranked American and more athletically gifted than almost anyone in the women’s game, is always on LPGA observers’ “breakout” radar so she’s a good name to find on any leaderboard. The fact that, at that moment, she was 1-under par was disappointing but not surprising. Despite having two victories in 2019 and nine other top-10s – an extraordinary year by most standards – so much more has been expected of the younger of the LPGA Tour’s Korda sisters.
Then Korda birdied the 16th to get to 2 under. After a towering, dead-straight tee shot at 17 that looked as effortless as a LeBron James layup, Nelly hit the par-5 in two and made an 18-footer for eagle. Fifteen minutes later, she rolled in a 7-footer for birdie at 18. From “no, she’s 1 under” to 5 under and in Friday’s penultimate threesome, just like that.
Nine holes and five birdies into her second round, Nelly was at 10 under and in the lead on her own. She didn’t yawn, but it certainly didn’t look like she was working hard to get there. The greats always make the near impossible look easy. Nelly Korda has a little Dustin Johnson in her – the cool walk, the killer stare, the placid demeanor. If Hollywood cast 21-year-old blonde women as gunslingers in westerns, they wouldn’t need to look much further.
She’s different among the Americans. Lexi Thompson wears her emotions and complications on her sleeve. The same is true of Danielle Kang. Even the other Korda, Jessica, can be prone to distraction. Nelly is a killer, a lion-hearted champion with a skill set that has hall-of-fame potential.
That’s not just an amateur opinion. Since she first broke out on tour, Rankin, herself a World Golf Hall of Famer, has been high on Nelly. “I think in little increments Nelly Korda just keeps coming along,” Rankin said before the first shots were struck in Naples. “I mean, she’s already a star but she’s just got all the qualities to be amongst the very top players in the game. So you can’t call her a dark horse except she’s never been in any of those positions before. But I see her coming on.
“I guess she didn’t start with a splash. It was a little disappointing, in fact, when she first turned pro but I think she’s gained her footing. Maybe having the sister support is an important thing out here. I can’t speak to that but I know when you have a good friend, a really good friend, there are a lot of pluses to that on tour.”
“I think that I’ve learned that I can compete with these girls. I can win multiple times.” – Nelly Korda
Then Rankin tapped her chest with her fist and said, “Nelly just seems to have more here. I love Jessica. I like both of those girls so much. They’re equally good. But I think it’s one of those undefined things that I see in Nelly. I could be absolutely wrong because Jessica has a lot of tools. It just seems to me that Nelly is a little more intense and a little more driven.”
From a distance, the Kordas are virtually indistinguishable. See them swing and you’ll be hard-pressed to tell them apart. Sometimes you recognize the different logos on their clothes and bags before you see any difference between them.
“Everything about them I think is remarkably the same,” said Golf Channel analyst Karen Stupples. “I think Judy hit the nail on the head. I think it comes down to that inner drive. What are you prepared to do extra to make it happen? I’m not saying that Jessica doesn’t have that because she does. She’s a proven winner. But in order to become No. 1 in the world or even have aspirations to become No. 1 in the world, you need to make those little extra sacrifices. You need to go that little bit further to achieve them. That requires a very special type of person.”
You see that in Nelly. She and Jessica were an unstoppable duo at this year’s Solheim Cup at Gleneagles but when Jessica made her Solheim debut in 2013 in Colorado, the nerves were impossible to miss. She looked like a wide-eyed kid thrown into the deep end of the pool. At Gleneagles, Nelly looked like the coolest customer on property.
“Maybe the sisters, in a way we don’t understand, drive each other,” Rankin said. “You know, it wouldn’t shock me if they were both in the top five in the world (soon). If technique matters, that could certainly be.”
Nelly herself tamps down those expectations – another trait of the great ones.
“I’ve had a lot of moments (this year),” she said. “I’m really proud of myself how consistent I’ve been. But I think probably playing with my sister at the Solheim Cup, that was really special. I’m going to look back to that moment for the rest of my career and life actually.
“But I’m still learning. I mean, that’s going to be for the rest of my career. I’m going to learn about myself every year, every tournament. I think that I’ve learned that I can compete with these girls. I can win multiple times.”
She delivered that last line with an understated bite and a blue-eyed stare that cut through everyone who saw it. The eyes of the killer. The heart of a champion.
Nelly Korda peers forward and waits her turn during the final round of the Taiwan Swinging Skirts LPGA, which she won earlier this month. Photo: Suhaimi Abdullah, Getty Images
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