Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 27, 2021

Nelly To The Rescue

A NOTE TO READERS:  There will be no Thursday post this week, as On Sports and Life will be traveling that day.  The regular schedule will resume next Sunday.  As always, thanks for reading.

Three weeks ago, in the wake of Lexi Thompson’s Sunday collapse at the U.S. Women’s Open, it was noted in this space that while American golf fans are both accustomed to and comfortable with rooting for international players, the LPGA’s ongoing efforts to grow the women’s game in this country, not to mention the Tour’s desire to garner sufficient sponsor support to place more of its events in the U.S., would both be helped by more American women emerging victorious at the LPGA’s five major tournaments.  At the end of the last century, as stars like Betsy King, Julie Inkster, Patty Sheehan and Dottie Pepper neared the end of their playing careers, victory by Americans at these marquee events was expected.  Even as that generation of LPGA players yielded to the emerging dominance of Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam, a younger group of golfers from the U.S. managed to keep at least one U.S. flag flying at a major tournament most seasons through the next dozen years.

Winning on their game’s grandest stages has been a harder thing for American women golfers more recently, and when Thompson’s shot-making faltered down the stretch at the Olympic Club, allowing Yuka Saso of the Philippines to claim the title, the U.S. drought at women’s majors stretched to eleven tournaments and thirty-three months since Angela Stanford’s victory at the Evian Championship in September 2018.  But as it turned out, all it took was a few short weeks and the arrival of the very next major for that long winless streak to end.  When the final pairing for Sunday’s last round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship stepped onto the 1st tee at the venerable Atlanta Athletic Club, it was an all-American twosome of Nelly Korda and Lizette Salas.  Deadlocked after 54 holes at 15-under par, the pair began the round five shots clear of their closest competitors.

Korda’s presence at the top of a LPGA leader board was certainly no surprise.  Since joining the Tour at the age of 18 in 2017, after a single successful season on the developmental Symetra Tour, she has risen steadily on both the LPGA money list and the Rolex World Rankings.  Her first Tour victory came in October 2018, shortly after Stanford’s win in France, and Korda added two more trophies in 2019 and another two wins earlier this season.  The second of those was just last week, at the Meijer LPGA Classic.  Those victories and her overall consistent play carried her all the way to third in the Rolex Rankings, the highest ranked American and one of just two U.S. players in the top-10 (Thompson is currently ranked seventh).  Her success on the course coupled with adroit marketing as one half of a remarkably successful sister act – older sibling Jessica has six LPGA wins of her own – had established Nelly as a Tour star long before she arrived in Atlanta.  She was a popular pick for the Open but struggled through two rounds of poor play and missed the cut at Olympic.  After that disappointment she readily admitted she had placed too much pressure on herself.

If fans have long been expecting to see Korda in the final group on Sunday at a major, the same could not be said for Salas.  A Tour member for nearly a decade, the 31-year-old has carved out a steady career but was not on any pundit’s list of “best players who haven’t won a major.”  Her sole LPGA victory came in 2014 at Kingsmill.  But if she hasn’t claimed a bunch of titles Salas has been a steady performer.  Her resume includes membership on the last four Solheim Cup teams, and in 2019, prior to the pandemic, she had her most lucrative season on Tour, passing the $1 million mark in single-season earnings for the first time.  Still, she had only occasionally cracked the top-20 in the world rankings and had just four top-10 finishes in majors in forty-four starts prior to the PGA Championship.

Appropriately enough, this odd couple arrived at the top of the leader board in completely different ways.  Korda got there largely on the strength of a scorching second round 63, when she finished with six consecutive birdies and a 29 on the front side (her second nine).  She then extended that streak to eight straight sub-par holes by making birdie on the two opening holes of her third round.  For Salas, the story was one of consistency.  She began play on Sunday at 15-under par because she had signed for 5-under rounds of 67 on each of the tournament’s first three days.

The scores through 54 holes suggested Sunday’s final round might turn into a match play event, and that is what it became when none of the already distant competitors managed to mount a charge against the top two.  Korda struck early with a display of power, drilling a 7-wood from 243 yards with her second shot on the par-5 5th hole.  The ball nearly went in, setting up a tap-in eagle.  Salas responded with a birdie of her own on the next hole, and the pair remained one stroke apart until the par-5 12th.  There Korda again used her length in decisive fashion.  After hammering a drive down the fairway she was able to reach the green in two with a 6-iron, while Salas was forced to lay up.  Unfortunately for the shorter hitting Salas, her third flew the green, leading to a bogey.  When Korda sank her putt for the second eagle on her scorecard, the one-shot edge ballooned to four. 

In the end the margin was three, and Nelly Korda now has her first major title.  In addition, the win will springboard her to the top of the world rankings, making Korda the first American at that pinnacle since Stacy Lewis in 2014.  Not surprisingly, the first person racing to congratulate Nelly after the final par putt fell was Jessica, whose own strong finish ensured that the sisters will be one-half of the four-member U.S. women’s Olympic golf team, along with Thompson and Danielle Kang.  Where only recently there was so much disappointment, suddenly things are looking up.


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