One Friday night in December, a group of major champions gathered in a ballroom at the Orlando Ritz-Carlton. This was a multigenerational meeting of golf legends, players like Watson and Trevino and Singh, in town to play the PNC Championship, now assembling for a group photo. Tiger Woods entered the room with his son, Charlie. He spotted someone he’d never met. “Nelly! Hey!” he said, delighted at his first encounter with, at the time, the world’s top-ranked female golfer. She couldn’t believe it.
“I was like, Oh my God, he knows my name,” Nelly Korda remembers. “He knows who I am! That’s crazy.”
We’re at The Yards, a lively 12-hole public course southeast of Jacksonville, Fla. Korda’s taking a break between photos, grinning as she recalls the moment. It’s as incredible to her as it is obvious to me: Of course Tiger Woods knows who Nelly Korda is. Who doesn’t? But you can forgive her for geeking out. Superstardom is, after all, relatively new to her.
Korda’s 2021 changed everything. She won five events. Became a major champion. Took home Olympic gold. Ascended to World No. 1. In the process, the 23-year-old with the picture-perfect golf swing attained a newfound status too: the face of American women’s golf.
Korda is sheepishly embracing her celebrity. “I’m definitely not getting in Ubers and going, ‘Wanna see my gold medal?’ ” she says, laughing. “I travel like a hobo, hood up, so I don’t get recognized. But occasionally I do, and then it’s actually really cool, especially when it’s by young kids who say I’ve inspired them.”
Inspiration comes naturally to Korda, in part because she’s had good examples. Her parents, Petr and Regina, were highly ranked pro tennis players from the Czech Republic. Her sister, Jessica, five years her senior, paved the family’s road to the LPGA. Rounding out the athletic clan is her younger brother, Sebastian, currently the world’s 38th-ranked tennis player.
“Our parents are our rocks,” Jessica says. “They’ve taught us everything.” Including the urgency of the present. Their advice: Enjoy the moment. Make the most of the situation. Time passes quickly.
The start of the sisters’ 2022 season has reinforced that urgency. Jessica missed time with a rib injury. Shortly after her return, Nelly was diagnosed with a blood clot in her arm, which caused her to miss the year’s first major, the Chevron Championship, and ultimately has required surgery and a longer layoff than expected.
Jessica acknowledged how strange it was to play a major without Nelly alongside her. She dug deep, summoned some of her best form and went on to finish second. Make the most of the situation.
The age difference between Nelly and Jessica meant they didn’t play much junior golf together, but they’ve made up for lost time. The two share practice rounds every Tuesday and dinner when their tournament schedules allow. They share friends, like practice partners Megan Khang, Austin Ernst and Alison Lee. They were Olympic teammates last season and have proven to be an unstoppable partnership in Solheim Cups. They even share a coach, Jamie Mulligan, who admires their bond.
“They’re sisters and they choose to be best friends,” he says at The Yards, watching them hit range balls side by side. “I’ve had a pretty charmed career, and this is one of the pleasures of my life, getting involved teaching them.”
The Kordas grew up in Bradenton, Fla., a hotbed for junior golfers and tennis players, and trained at nearby IMG Academy. Jessica was a four-time LPGA Tour winner when Nelly, 17 and the world’s top– ranked junior, decided to turn pro in 2016. She did so quietly, without an agent or sponsors, wearing her sister’s hand-medown clothes. But it didn’t take long to make an impression. She won her first professional start at a Symetra Tour event in South Dakota. Game on.
The next steps came quickly. In 2018, Nelly won for the first time on the LPGA Tour. In 2019, she won twice more. The transition to golf ’s highest level proved a smooth one. Jessica benefited too.
“She revived my career,” she says. “It’s just so nice to have someone—for family to travel with you. It’s so lonely, and you can get lost in the entire process. To have some balance, golf and non-golf stuff, was amazing.”
The two reside on opposite sides of the Sunshine State: Jessica on Florida’s buzzier east coast, where she lives and trains in Jupiter; and Nelly in Bradenton, where she relishes the relative quiet and lives just minutes from her parents. The sisters see each other all the time. They talk even more often. They learn from each other. But asked whether she ever offers her kid sister advice, Jessica grins.
“Oh, God no,” she says.
Korda’s chief competitors describe her as chill and laid-back. But when the stakes get high, her fire starts to burn.
“She’s pretty easygoing,” says Leona Maguire, one of Korda’s Solheim Cup opponents. “But she has a killer instinct too. You don’t get to No. 1 without hitting the shots you want when you want.”
Another Solheim Cup opponent, Madelene Sagström, describes Korda as friendly but inscrutable. “You don’t know what’s going on with Nelly on the inside,” she says. “But the fact that you can never count her out? That’s intimidating.”
LPGA veteran Christina Kim has seen a generation of would-be stars come and go. She’s in awe of Korda’s alpha approach. “Nothing happens to her,” Kim says. “She’s accountable. She understands that she is the one who makes it happen.”
Korda’s chief rival, Jin Young Ko, who reclaimed the No. 1 title in January, says she considers Korda a good friend.
“She’s very funny,” Ko says. “And so talented. I have learned so many things from her.” What separates the two? Ko shrugs. “Mostly the same,” she says. “But she can hit it [285 yards], straight, every time. And she’s taller. And very pretty.”
Korda knows she locks in at game time. She spends most tournament rounds in “my own bubble,” which proves particularly effective; she has a surreal ability to zone in on the shot and block out distractions. That’s a quality she shares with the man she met in the Orlando ballroom.
“I’ve had bags drop and people yell in my swings and everyone’s like, ‘How did you not stop?’ And I just don’t even notice it,” she says.
But don’t mistake intensity for indifference. Ask Korda what she loves most about golf and she gets a faraway look in her eye, like she’s transported to the back nine on a big-time Sunday.
“It’s the moments you’re coming down the stretch and in contention, and you feel the rush through your entire body,” she says. “Those moments, I just love the intensity. Afterward, you feel really sick because you’re like, Oh my God, I just went through a million emotions in the past four hours. But that’s what I love. I strive to be in that position as many times as possible. That’s what I work for.”
Loving the heat of battle is one thing that sets her apart. But what takes Korda to the next level is something even more rare: a love of the grind.
“I’m not going to explain this well,” she says, sighing. I assume that means it’s particularly important. And what she says next is especially striking. “It’s all a roller coaster, right? Professional, personal, emotional. But you can’t stay on top forever. And it’s so weird to say, but I enjoy the lows. Sometimes I’m like, ‘I just need a s—– week.’ Because I do love the grind. I love trying to get back up.”
Given her recent health scare, that resilience will come in handy. Where she begins the rebuilding is at home on the range. She spends hours practicing alone, playing alone, going through what she calls “boot camps” to prep for events. She despises mediocrity, though she appreciates the challenge it represents. She went bowling recently and was dismayed with her score of 110; one member of her group rolled a 270. She followed it up with a 134 but left wanting more.
“I was like, I’m gonna start bowling every week!” she says. “But I woke up and my forearm hurt. So the bowling career is on hold.”
Nelly doesn’t share her day-to-day goals or even her ambitions for the year ahead. That’s none of our business. But when she’s asked what motivates her, she makes it clear she’s not content with mere money or fame. She’s chasing something far more difficult and elusive: greatness.
“I want to be the best golfer in the world,” she says. “I want to be World No. 1, and I want to have the Grand Slam, and I want to work toward something that no one’s ever done before.”
Knowing all too well how golf ’s roller coaster goes up and down, Korda is brave in saying something like that out loud. But she’s determined to enjoy taking on every challenge. It’s the surest way to make the most of her moment. There is, after all, an urgency to the present. Because greatness takes time. And time passes quickly.