The best vibe in professional golf right now isn’t at Valhalla

nelly korda and rose zhang

Nelly Korda, left, and Rose Zhang have been lighting up the women's game.

getty images

It’s become commonplace, to say that professional golf is in a state of chaos right now, a soap opera starring all manner of unlikely people, from Yasir Al-Rumayyan to the Louisville police officer who put Scottie Scheffler in handcuffs.But it’s not professional golf that’s so chaotic right now. It’s elite men’sprofessional golf that is in such a mess.

By Sunday night at the PGA Championship at Valhalla, things will look better. Some elite male golfer will clean-and-jerk the Wanamaker Trophy and earn a permanent place in elite men’s professional golf history. He will also get a check for $3.15 million.

But all the while, many of us are missing the best, and most reliable, thing happening in professional golf now, and that is the quality of the elite women’s professional game. The LPGA is in week two of a five-week trip across the Northeast and it is special.

Last week was Part I of this Great Northeastern Golf Swing, with the women congregating at the Upper Montclair County Club, a stop-time A.W. Tillinghast course in northern New Jersey, for the Cognizant Founders Cup. It was there that Nelly Korda tried to win her sixth straight event and Rose Zhang, Stanford University student and professional golfer, won her second LPGA title. She shot 24 under. I played the course right before the tournament and would have guessed a winning score of maybe 10 under. These guys are good. Wildly good and modest to a fault. 

This week, in Part II of this Great Northeastern Golf Swing, the LPGA is playing down the road from Upper Montclair, at Liberty National, in Jersey City. Nelly Korda is in the field. So was Zhang until an illness led her to withdraw. Also on the tee sheet: Lydia Ko, Jennifer Kupcho, Lexi Thompson, among other fan favorites.

You know how one of the stated problems of elite men’s professional golf is that there are so few occasions when the best players in the world all gather in one place? Elite women’s professional golf doesn’t have that problem. When the women play, they all play, pretty much.

The women will all gather again (GNGS Part III) for the grandest of all women’s golf events, the U.S. Open, to be played May 30 through June 2 at the Lancaster Country Club, a William Flynn masterwork in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country, with its lazy hills and lush spring grass. This will be a joy for any number of reasons, including the chance to celebrate Mr. Flynn, who put his stamp on Merion, Shinnecock Hills and Pine Valley without leaving obvious footprints or fingerprints. He’s the least me-me-me of the great architects.

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Then, after a week off, comes GNGS Part IV, the ShopRite Classic, in early June, played on the lovely old Bay Course of the lovely old Seaview Resort. On June 7, on the Friday of this 90-hole event, Patti LaBelle will be playing down the road at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. Lady LaBelle. Hey sister soul sister indeed.

Yes, technically the ShopRite is 54 holes, with one round on its Friday, one more on Saturday, one more on Sunday. We’re saying 90 holes because the ShopRite event has not one but two days of pro-am fun, featuring hundreds of golfers, professional and amateur. Everywhere you look on ShopRite Wednesday and ShopRite Thursday, there are shuttle vans and golf carts depositing golfers of all shapes and sizes to various sea-level teeing grounds. Brackish air. Good times.

I had the good fortune of being dropped into this Great Northeastern Golf Swing twice this month. Through the kindness  of others, I was able to play in the pro-am at the Cognizant Founders Cup at Upper Montclair, and this week in the pro-am at the Mizuho Americas Cup at Liberty National. The Founders Cup, a Mike Whan invention from his time as LPGA commissioner, honors the 13 founding mothers who got the LPGA off the ground in 1950, every last one of them a remarkable person with a one-off life story. It continues that tradition by honoring LPGA living legends, this year Pat Bradley and Beth Daniel.

An early highlight of the Cognizant event was seeing them as the Wednesday night pro-am party in the Upper Montclair C.C. clubhouse. Also hanging out there was Nelly Korda and Rose Zhang, in the vicinity of a buffet station with a large bowl of red-pepper hummus. Turns out, these two LPGA golf stars were multi-tasking. LPGA regulations require the players to appear at 60 percent of the pro-am parties of the tournaments in which they play, and yes, attendance is taken. Before long, they walked into the adjacent Travis Room and a dinner for potential members of the 2024 U.S. Solheim Cup team. Zhang and Korda will be on that team, with Stacy Lewis as their captain. 

At that pro-am party there were four Hall of Famers were milling about: Ms. Bradley and Ms. Daniel, and also Meg Mallon and Nancy Lopez. The LPGA commissioner, Mollie Marcoux Samaan, was in circulation, too. If you wanted to talk to any of them, about most anything, all you had to was ask. Pat Bradley was dancing. An unexpected treat, to see that.

The next day, I got to see Yealimi Noh’s game up close during a pro-am round. Noh, a promising 22-year-old LPGA player, hit it right on the face and high. She takes some aggressive lines. She’s a pleasure to watch and play with. Over nine holes (and nearly three hours) of fivesome better-ball golf on that Wednesday, Noh did nothing but make new fans, her parents watching all the while. At the turn, Yealimi said goodbye and Lucy Li, also from Northern California, came in. You may remember her playing in a U.S. Open at age 11. That was in 2014. She’s 21 now. The game no longer comes easily to her. Every pro golfer has a story and a path. These pro-ams are opportunities to hear those stories.

Madelene Sagstrom of Sweden plays her shot from the third green during the third round of the Cognizant Founders Cup at Upper Montclair Country Club
Madelene Sagstrom came up just short in her Founders Cup duel with Rose Zhang. getty images

They are also unique social occasions, typically with four amateurs and one pro. At the Founders Cup, I got to play with young Addie Parker, who writes for Golf Digestamong other publications. She was introduced to golf by her father and came up in the game in the First Tee program in Richmond, Va. Her swing is stylish and rhythmic and she drives it long and often in playOn the back nine, she and Lucy compared notes on their favorite Formula 1 drivers. That’s an on-course conversation I have never heard before.

I will save my analysis of the other members of our troop — the editor Alan Bastable and his caddie, his 12-year-old son Declan; our colleague Zephyr Melton and his caddie, Leia Schwartz, rising star of the USGA communications team; my own caddie, Jofie Ferrari-Adler, former cart boy at the Athens (Ga.) Country Club, now a book editor — for another occasion. I will say that another highlight was watching Declan play chip shots to tee markers during a back-nine wait. These pro-ams take patience.

This week, at the Mizuho pro-am at Liberty National, I played the front nine with Bailey Tardy, who won in China earlier this year, and the back nine with Wei-Ling Hsu, who represented Taiwan in the 2020 Olympics, who speaks perfect Chinese (her native language) and English (her adopted one). Two golfers in their 20s playing the world with totally different games and styles and personalities, both women so interesting, each in her own way. Bailey talked (comically) about winning in China amid the various on-course challenges brought on by . . . food poisoning. Wei-Ling described driving from Upper Montclair to Liberty National, past the George Washington Bridge (George Washington!), the New York skyline to her left (New York, New York!), heading south toward the Statue of Liberty. Professional golf can be a lonely enterprise, she said. But that moment, with New Jersey to her right and Manhattan to her left, almost took her breath away, as she took a moment to think about the places golf has taken her.

On Wednesday, Tom Kite, who co-designed the Liberty National course with Bob Cupp, was at his course. We talked some about the pleasure of a 530-yard hole as a true par-5, as it is for the women playing this week. Real golf is sane, and hues closely to the game’s traditional values, including the par-5 as a three-shot hole. LPGA golf does that in ways the PGA Tour does not. Liberty National has matured beautifully since the Tour had its first stop there, in 2009. But it’s a better course for the women. 

And now the women are there. Part II of IV. North Jersey, Jersey City, Amish Country, Jersey Shore. 

When I left the Upper Montclair clubhouse last Wednesday night, the parking lot was almost empty, but there was one enormous Chevy Suburban in it, with its lights on and its engine running, with one person in it, Stacy Lewis, on a cellphone. She had a car and a phone and her clubs and a plan. She was on tour. This is some stretch, in elite women’s professional golf, and this is some time. Women’s golf is about the golf. What a concept.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at

Michael Bamberger

Michael Bamberger Contributor

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF Magazine and Before that, he spent nearly 23 years as senior writer for Sports Illustrated. After college, he worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has written a variety of books about golf and other subjects, the most recent of which is The Second Life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a U.S. patent on The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016, he was given the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.

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