JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Eight years ago, Nelly Korda competed in her first major championship, the 2013 U.S. Women’s Open. It was the moment she first dreamed of becoming a major champion. Sunday, that dream came true. Korda raised her hands in celebratory victory when she made her par putt on the 72nd hole at Atlanta Athletic Club to win the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship by three shots over Lizette Salas.
Tears escaped her eyes at the award ceremony – not only because of what she had just accomplished but because of entire journey getting to this point. Two weeks ago, she missed the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open and nothing felt right – irons off and mind unclear. She couldn’t have foreseen the fortnight that would follow – winning back-to-back tournaments, becoming a major champion, getting into the Olympics and reaching world No. 1.
Family is everything to the young Korda. Without her older sister, Jessica, showing her the ropes on the LPGA; without her mother’s support during the tournament; without her boyfriend, Andreas Athanasiou, to take her mind off golf after the rounds; without her father, Petr, and brother, Sebastian, on FaceTime cheering from afar; without her caddie, Jason McDede, managing her game and emotions through the round; Nelly knows she wouldn’t be here.
The tears fell again when Nelly brought up her sister.
“Jess is like the best big sister. No one ever …” Nelly paused to collect herself. “I don't think anyone can come close to her. She just has a heart of gold.”
Jessica is 5 years older and turned professional in 2010, six years before Nelly. She’s had six professional wins, her last at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in January. “She [Nelly] has been playing so solid and I have no words. It’s just really, really cool,” said Jessica, who got to hug Nelly as Jessica made the turn on Sunday and Nelly was about to begin her round.
On Saturday, Nelly and Salas separated themselves from the field. Salas shot her third 67 for the week and Korda 68. They were tied at 15 under par going into the final round and five shots ahead of second place, shared by Patty Tavatanakit, Celine Boutier and Giulia Molinaro.
The epic match continued on Sunday with Korda ahead by only one shot after the front nine. Salas made back-to-back birdies on Nos. 5 and 6. Korda birdied No. 4 and tapped in for eagle on No. 5 after a near albatross.
“It was really good on the front nine,” said McDede, who worked on strategy with Nelly the night before. Everything “clicked” for the first nine holes. “And then the back nine got a little bit interesting,” McDede continued.
- A chunk on the par-5 12th with her 6-iron barely clears the water.
- An eagle on No. 12 and birdie on No. 14 turns a two-shot lead into five.
- A water-ball double bogey on the par-3 15th drops Nelly’s lead from five to three.
Her caddie told her she was thinking 40 minutes ahead.
“She told me when I first came to work for her, Jason, I want to take it one shot at a time, so I said, ‘Remember what you told me. You wanted to take it one shot at a time so let’s take it one shot at a time.’”
- With nerves of steel on the par-3 17th, she survives the second-to-last water hole on the course.
- With adrenaline pumping on her third shot at the par-5 18th, she shoots her pitching wedge to the back fringe.
- An 8-foot comeback for par and Korda is finally a major champion.
“I don't even know how that par putt rolled in, but I'm so glad it did, and it was a nice feeling,” said the 22-year-old after her round.
And to help her celebrate: her family. “Jess has done so much for my family, and I honestly wouldn't be here without her. And my mom, too. So, it's special. When I'm down, they're always there,” Nelly said.
Outsiders will say that it’s in their genes – that the Kordas are natural-born athletes. Both parents were tennis professionals: dad Petr reached world No. 2 and won the1998 Australian Open; mom Regina Rajchrtová competed in the 1988 Summer Olympics for Czechoslovakia. Their youngest child, Sebastian, won the junior title at the 2018 Australian Open and will compete at Wimbledon this week. Both Jessica and Nelly will compete in this year’s Olympics. Sebastian may as well.
But genetics, though part and parcel, is not everything.
“It’s so much hard work that gets put in,” said Jessica. “Nelly missed the cut at the U.S. Open, went home and regrouped, so it’s a lot of behind the scenes. In the morning we talk to our parents, in the afternoon we talk to our parents and at night we talk to our parents. We have different group chats going between the five of us and we know we can always lean on each other for the hard times.”
Sunday, Nelly Korda became a major champion, No. 1 in the world and a future Olympian. When she looks back to just two weeks ago, after that U.S. Open missed cut, she has just three words:
“Never give up.”