The LPGA tried a brand-new format. Nelly Korda won anyway

Nelly Korda's win in Las Vegas marks four in a row.

Nelly Korda has won four LPGA starts in a row.

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The last time Nelly Korda played a golf tournament and didn’t win, the Buffalo Bills were still in the NFL playoffs. Ron DeSantis was still running for president. Nick Dunlap was still an amateur golfer. Flaco the owl was alive and well.

Ancient history.

Korda entered this week’s T-Mobile Match Play on a historic heater. She won the LPGA Drive On Championship. Then the Seri Pak Championship. Then the Ford Championship. Three wins in a row. The streak survived a layoff. It survived a road trip. It survived another road trip. And it arrived in Las Vegas for a distinctly different test.

“I feel like with sports and golf in general, you have so much time to think,” she said ahead of the tournament. “So I think that staying in the moment is something that I try really hard to focus on.”

In other words, while the rest of the golfing world was focused on her big-picture accomplishments, she did everything she could to avoid them. A five-hour drive from Gilbert, Ariz. had given her enough time to soak in the win. Now it was on to the next.

And the next was something different. (Credit to the LPGA and tournament organizers, by the way. Something different is good and match play is good and this week was, by extension, good.) This week’s Match Play wasn’t just match play. It began on Wednesday, kicking off 54 holes of stroke play. After 36 holes, there was a cut to the top 65 players. After another 18 holes there was another cut, this time to eight players. On Saturday those eight played off, quarterfinals and semifinals. And on Sunday there was a final showdown.

The course was distinctly different, too. Different than the Florida course where she’d begun her win streak. Different than the California course where she’d won her second. Different than the Arizona course where she’d won her third. Shadow Creek in any setting is unlike any other place on earth — a bright-green desert oasis with waterfalls and a four-figure tee time — but this week it was especially so, set up fast and furious, every bit a major championship-style test. Only six players finished under par. Through two days, Korda wasn’t one of them. But by the end of three, she was. On to the weekend.

“It’s just brutal in this weather and the conditions we’re playing in,” Korda said. “The greens are just way, way too firm in this type of condition.”

Too firm for everyone else, maybe. Korda didn’t say that part.

As the weekend arrived, the randomness of match play could have thrown a wrench in the mix. In stroke play, over time, greatness rises to the top. But match play? Anything can happen. But Korda made sure anything didn’t happen. She beat her Solheim Cup teammate Angel Yin 3 and 2 in the quarterfinals.

“I think it’s fun,” Korda said. “I don’t get to play much match play. Only time we get to really do that is in Solheim Cup where you get to go 1 v. 1.”

Then she beat Narin An 4 and 3.

“Fairways and greens. Fairways and greens out here. That’s all I was thinking,” she said. “Worked out well.”

There was a matter-of-factness to the proceedings. An inevitability. The victories set up a Sunday showdown with Leona Maguire. Of all the Sunday showdowns the LPGA could have picked, this one would have been near the top. Korda is the unquestioned World No. 1; Maguire is a match-play assassin. They’ve been Solheim Cup opponents and will continue to be. Plus Maguire had been the stroke-play medalist.

“I know she’s going to be fiery. That’s just how Leona is,” Korda said. “She’s a great competitor. I think it’ll be great to share the stage with her and hopefully it’ll be a good show.”

But then it wasn’t much of a fight. Korda won the second hole. She won the fifth hole, and the sixth, and the seventh. Suddenly she was 4 up. The match wasn’t over — Maguire would win a few holes on the way in — but it may as well have been.

“This golf course is so tough that pars are going to go a long way,” Korda said, still understated in victory. Pars had taken her a long way but birdies had, too.

“You know you’re going to have to make birdies if you want to beat her,” Maguire said, deferential to her conqueror. “Unfortunately, I didn’t make enough today. All I could do is play my own game, and that wasn’t good enough today.”

It was easy for the event to get lost in the shuffle of the sporting weekend. There was a PGA Tour event, the Valero Texas Open, taking over NBC. There was the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, a big event on golf’s biggest stage, wrapping up Saturday and followed by the Drive, Chip and Putt on Sunday. There was a LIV Golf event in Miami competing for eyeballs on the CW. A playoff on the Korn Ferry Tour even interrupted the beginning of the LPGA’s final match broadcast. And the women’s basketball national championship — just the latest in a record-setting string of NCAA tournament games — wrapped as the finale was getting started.

Added together, those may have siphoned off viewers. But that doesn’t take anything from the historic nature of Korda’s accomplishment. If anything, the hype around Caitlin Clark’s run should encourage golf fans — and organizations, and broadcast partners, and anyone in the LPGA’s general orbit — to build the hype around Korda, too. Not to add pressure to what’s next but certainly to appreciate what she’s already done. The last time an LPGA player won four starts in a row was Lorena Ochoa in 2008. The all-time record is five in a row, set by Nancy Lopez in 1978 and equaled by Annika Sorenstam in 2004-5. This is greatness in real time.

One of the greatest parts of Korda’s run is that — to borrow from Iowa vs. South Carolina — she wants the ball when the clock’s ticking down. That’s what gets her going.

“I just love competing,” she said post-round. “I love golf. I hopefully am inspiring the next generation. But there is no greater thrill for me than competing and being out here and seeing the girls and going head to head for a title.”

Korda’s next start is at the Chevron Championship, the year’s first major. A win there would add Texas to her list of conquests. It would double her major championship total. It would tie that LPGA record.

First there will be a celebration. Korda doesn’t drink, but she’s allowed herself some small indulgences in recent weeks. Sunday night she had big plans. Paris Baguette for her and her team. Then In-N-Out burger — plus Five Guys fries. “Just an elite combination,” she said.

What’s next will come next. The hype around the Chevron should be intense, but she welcomes that. It marks Korda’s chance to put herself in rare company.

Let’s just not forget that she’s already there.

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