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Monday Scramble: Tough as Nells as Korda enters new professional stratosphere

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Nelly Korda takes a massive leap, Harris English survives a marathon, Lizette Salas and Kramer Hickok hang tough, Steve Stricker finally delivers and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

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Nelly Korda stamped herself as a bona fide superstar Sunday at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, where she made two eagles on her way to a stirring victory over Lizette Salas.

At 19-under 269, Korda tied the tournament scoring record to par and trounced a field that, other than Salas, didn’t finish within nine shots. It was a shocking decimation in a major, and it completed a fortnight that saw Korda post two victories and shoot a combined 44 under par.

Still just 22, Korda marked herself a potential player for the ages. In this breakout year, she has a tour-leading three wins and eight top-10s in 11 starts. Her win at the KPMG made her the first American major winner since 2018, and the first U.S. player to ascend to world No. 1 since Stacy Lewis in 2014.

'Is this week even real?' asks Nelly Korda

A maiden major victory and the top spot in the Rolex Rankings. It was a week Nelly Korda can't yet comprehend.

“Wow, just wow,” Korda said afterward. “A dream come true. A major championship and No. 1 in the world – is this even real? It’s amazing.”

The gritty Lewis got everything she could out of her game, but Korda’s ceiling seems limitless. She is top 15 in both driving distance and putts per green in regulation, making her the best and the most complete of the tour’s biggest boppers. That combination will always be a threat. 

What seemed evident before has now been made plainly obvious: It is Nelly Korda, not Lexi Thompson, who represents the Americans’ best hope for a dominant superstar.

A couple of other LPGA notes:

Korda made a pair of eagles in the final round, on the par-5 fifth and 12th holes, that helped seal her victory.

Here she is on No. 5, stuffing a 7-wood to mere inches (peep the A-plus club twirl, too):

But Korda's eagle on the 12th hole might have been more significant. Leading by just one, she took an (accidentally?) aggressive line with her approach, landing her second shot barely on the green and running out about 10 feet left of the flag. Salas, meanwhile, laid up and then hit a terrible wedge into the back bunker, taking a bogey. The ensuing three-shot swing turned what was a narrow lead into a four-shot cushion. Ballgame.

* * *  

Want to feel old?

Here are the ages of the three women’s major champions this year:

• Yuka Saso, U.S. Women’s Open, 19 (now 20)

• Patty Tavatanakit, ANA Inspiration, 21

• Nelly Korda, KPGA Women’s PGA, 22

Must mean Yealimi Noh (19), Nasa Hataoka (22) or Brooke Henderson (23) are next.

Korda winning KPMG is a family affair

Korda winning KPMG is a family affair

You can make a case that the Kordas are the most ludicrously talented American sports family:

• Father Petr: Reached No. 2 in the world, 1998 Australian Open champ

• Mother Regina: Top-30 tennis pro before injuries derailed career

• Daughter Jessica: 6-time LPGA winner, major contender

• Daughter Nelly: 6-time LPGA winner, major champ, certified baller

• Son Sebastian: Top 50-ranked tennis pro

All three younger Kordas (Jessica, Nelly, Sebastian) will represent the U.S. at the upcoming Olympics. Incredible.

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It may have taken an extra few hours, but Harris English now has the “validation” victory that he’s been seeking.

English, 31, needed seven years to earn a drought-busting victory at the first event of this calendar year, the Tournament of Champions, a winners-only event that he’d qualified for, in these COVID-19 times, because he’d advanced to the 2020 Tour Championship. English’s game tailed off after that breakthrough, but this month he’s enjoyed the type of results he’d grown accustomed to seeing. He had a chance to win at Congaree before fading to a T-14. He nearly backdoored his way into a playoff at the U.S. Open, finishing solo third. And now he’s a multiple winner this season on Tour, outdueling Kramer Hickok in a marathon eight-hole playoff at the Travelers. It was the longest overtime period on Tour since 2012.

“It’s hard,” said English, who drained a 25-footer on the final hole of regulation to post the clubhouse lead at 13-under 267, then rolled in a 16-footer on the eighth extra hole to finally vanquish Hickok. “It’s hard to stay mentally into it and not to lose focus, but I tried really hard to stay focused and stay sharp and really be on my toes, because in a playoff situation in match-play scenarios like that, you’ve got to be ready for anything.”

For English, the win was important in myriad ways: It kept him in line for a massive payday, as he now sits at No. 2 in the season-long FedExCup standings; it moved him up to a career-best No. 12 in the world; and perhaps most important to English, it put him squarely on captain Steve Stricker’s radar for a Ryder Cup wildcard selection. He's now eighth in the standings, sandwiched between Patrick Reed and Patrick Cantlay. 

“I still need to keep playing well and keep showing Strick that I deserve to be on the team,” English said, “but I'm looking forward to having a chance, and we’ll see what happens.”

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There isn’t much left for Viktor Hovland to prove, as the 23-year-old won for the first time on the European Tour in what was just his sixth full-fledged tour event as a pro.

Three shots clear at the start of the final round in Germany, Hovland stalled early but never lost the outright lead to a hard-changing Martin Kaymer. Then Hovland’s putter heated up down the stretch and he wound up two shots clear, at 19 under par.

That’s a familiar theme for Hovland, who is in just his second full year as a pro and continues to get better.

He’ll forever be known as an elite driver and iron player, but a year ago he ranked 168th in strokes gained: around the green and 115th in putting.

Though he’s still not even sniffing the leaders in those categories, he’s markedly better – 101st around the green and 73rd on the greens. He’s no longer losing strokes to the field in those areas. On a circuit as strong and as deep as the PGA Tour, those are sizable and significant gains.

He’s won on the PGA Tour. He’s now a winner on the European Tour. And he’s all but locked up a spot on the European Ryder Cup team, where the only question, it seems, is whether at Whistling Straits he’ll go 5-0 or simply 4-1. He’s a primetime player who won’t shy from the spotlight.

Kramer Hickok falls short after 'hard-fought battle'

Kramer Hickok falls short after 'hard-fought battle'

And now, a few words on this week’s notable runners-up:

With only seven weeks remaining in the regular season, Hickok was on the verge of losing his PGA Tour card. He was 137th in the FedExCup standings, in desperate need of a good week to give himself some freedom over his final few starts. His opening 63 announced his intentions this week, then he gamely stood tall while playing in the last group on the weekend.

After English’s closing birdie, it looked like Hickok might fall just short until he stuffed a wedge to 9 feet on the 72nd hole and poured in the birdie putt, delivering an emphatic fist pump.

It wasn’t the last pressure putt he’d make:

• A 5-footer on playoff hole No. 1

• A 7-footer on playoff hole No. 3

• A 6-footer on playoff hole No. 4

• A 14-footer on playoff hole No. 6

It wasn’t enough to top English, but it gave Hickok some breathing room – he’s all the way up to No. 69 in the FedExCup, securing his playing privileges for next season – and a new perspective on his Tour career.

“I learned that I belong,” he said.

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As for Salas, she was six shots better than third place at the Women’s PGA but unable to keep pace over 72 holes with the new No. 1. As painful as Salas’ pace of play was to watch, she earned a lot of respect here for the way she continued to give herself chances despite spotting Korda at least 30 yards off the tee and coming into Atlanta Athletic Club’s tricky greens with long irons and hybrids. She opened with three consecutive rounds of 67, had a chance to tie the lead early in the back nine and posted 16 under. Nothing to scoff at.

It wasn’t her best chance to win a major – that came at the 2019 Women’s British, where she missed a 4-footer on the final green – but like Hickok, this close call gave Salas a new appreciation for where she’s been, and where she still hopes to go.

Open about her struggles with mental health over the past year, Salas briefly contemplated retirement. She talked out her issues with her team, then emerged on the other side with a greater balance in her life and career.

“I think I’m back,” she said tearfully. “It’s just a beautiful thing, and I don’t mean to cry because – I’m just really happy right now.”



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Captain Clutch ...: Steve Stricker. There was a sliver of doubt after Stricker came back to the field a bit following the third round, but a closing 70 was enough to run away with a six-shot victory at The Senior Players. Stricker has held at least a share of the lead following seven of 12 rounds in senior majors this season, but he had coughed up the lead at each of the first two senior majors: He finished runner-up at the Regions Tradition after holding a one-shot lead, then sank to T-11 at the Senior PGA after leading by one. No such troubles this time for Stricks, which leads us to ...

The Opposite of Captain Clutch: Bubba Watson. The leader at the Travelers by one on the back nine, Watson absolutely imploded coming home, shooting 41, playing the last five holes in 6 over (bogey-bogey-bogey-double-bogey) and tumbling all the way to T-19. At least Bubba took the defeat in stride, saying afterward: "I'm glad that I was there, had the opportunity. I would love to do it again next week, throw up on myself again. It would it be great. I want to the opportunity and the chance to win."

About Time: Improved LPGA stats. OK, so the best women in the world won’t all of a sudden have insider access to Mark Broadie’s database, but KPMG stepping up to improve the tour’s statistical technology (and thus improving the context of a player’s performance) is a huge leap forward. Slowly but surely, they’re starting to narrow the gap between the top men’s and women’s tours in the world.

Encouraging Sign: Brooks Koepka. He’s been so good in the majors that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Koepka is still just three months removed from knee surgery. This was his first time playing three events in a row – and he said he felt “better than I thought it would be, to be honest with you.” Despite some nasty swelling and one day of stiffness, Koepka was able to tough it out on the back end of a three-week stretch, shoot a final-round 65 and tie for fifth. To prepare for The Open, well, he’s going on vacation and won’t pick up a club for 10 days. Which means he'll probably finish in the top 3 again at Royal St. George's.

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Giving Paddy Something to Think About: Martin Kaymer. Even though he was named as one of European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington’s assistants last week, Kaymer, the former world No. 1, made it clear that he still wants to contend for a spot on the squad. He seemed as determined as ever Sunday, dropping 10 birdies and giving Hovland a scare before finishing second in Germany. Though he’s winless since 2014 and appears a long shot for the European side, Kaymer has had a few chances to win of late. Good to see. 

A Little Extreme, No?: Open Championship protocols. In an update last week, the R&A issued some strict protocols ahead of The Open, which includes the requirement that players cannot share accommodations outside of their four-person immediate circle, a group that includes a coach, caddie, manager or medical support staffer. That’s led to a considerable amount of grumbling, with some players (anonymously, of course) griping that they considered withdrawing from the event. They didn’t, nor will they – and they’d best be grateful they’re exempt from the mandatory 10-day requirement for incoming travelers.

Hate to See It: Shanshan Feng. The former world No. 1 seemed to suggest that the Women’s PGA may be her final event in the U.S., not just this year – but for the rest of her career. Feng is returning home to her native China to fulfill the quarantine requirements ahead of the Olympics, but after that, she said, her career is uncertain. She’s still just 31 and is in her 13th season on tour. If she’s truly on the verge of retirement, her ebullient personality will be sorely missed.

Borderline Impossible: 300-yard broken driver. IYKYK, because it’s one of the strangest feelings in golf, snapping the head of a driver at impact. The ball usually flutters meekly in some errant direction while we’re left scrambling for a replacement gamer before our next round. (Not brought out to us two holes later by an equipment rep.) Ah, but Bubba did the unthinkable here, breaking his driver but still carving out a 270-yard drive that rolled out to the 300-yard mark. Another reminder that these guys – they’re not like us!

Remember the Name: Vincent Norrman. In his professional debut, the Florida State standout (and the former D-II Player of the Year at Georgia Southwestern) tied for fifth at the BMW International Open, following up a recent T-14 in Sweden. He’s a big-time talent.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Kevin Streelman. The runner-up here a year ago, Streels didn’t do much wrong posting 1 under for the opening 36 holes – but that still wasn’t enough to play the weekend, ending a streak of four consecutive top-20s worldwide. The event’s second-leading money leader wasn’t able to pad his bank account this year. Sigh.