Monday Finish: A Korda reversal, ‘angry golfers,’ and Paulina’s DJ insights
Welcome to the Monday Finish! This is where we’ll tally the scores for the week that was and tee you up for the week to come.
Of all the quotes that came out of a thrilling golf weekend, one has stuck with me the most. It was a lighthearted remark from Jessica Korda about her sister Nelly after her memorable round of 11-under 60 on Saturday:
“I mean, I was winning up until she came out on Tour.”
At first it sounded like a throwaway comment, but think more about the truth behind what she said. When Nelly Korda arrived on the LPGA Tour in 2017, Jessica had won four events in the last four years and seemed primed for more. But since Jessica’s most recent win in February 2018, Nelly had won three times and ascended to a peak of world No. 2 — leapfrogging her big sister. To the public, Jessica shifted effortlessly to the role of supportive sibling, but there’s no way it was that easy nor that simple.
On Sunday, after holding off Nelly and Danielle Kang in the LPGA’s season opener, Jessica was asked how she has stayed motivated through injuries and uneven results these last few years. She choked up as she answered.
“My family,” she said. “They’re always there to pick me up when I’m down. Let me tell you, I’ve been down. My family is everything. They’re my biggest support system. They believe in me more than I believe in myself.”
Then she did something particularly rare for any professional athlete: She thanked the reporter for asking that question. Sunday’s win wasn’t just a big one for the Korda family. It was a victory for older siblings everywhere.
Who won what?
-Jessica Korda beat out Danielle Kang with a curling, fist-pumping birdie putt on the first playoff hole at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, but you already know that, because of the six paragraphs preceding this one. And shoutout to Mardy Fish, who won the event’s celebrity portion.
–Si Woo Kim fended off a 61 from Patrick Cantlay (who shot an outrageous 18 under on the weekend) with a 64 of his own to win the American Express by a single shot and claim his first victory since the Players Championship in 2017. Kim has been playing much better of late, suggesting this victory is a sign of things to come rather than a fluky one-off.
–Tyrrell Hatton, who started the day a shot behind Rory McIlroy, fired 66 to McIlroy’s 72 to win the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship by four. McIlroy finished third, which he seems to do to start pretty much every year — per Justin Ray, McIlroy has finished inside the top five to start 13 of his last 14 years but has incredibly never won one of those events.
INSIDE THE COACHING CAROUSEL
Part mystery, part merry-go-round.
Last week in this space, we broke down what we really knew about Jordan Spieth‘s consultations with Butch Harmon in Las Vegas. But it turns out Spieth wasn’t the only high-profile Tour pro stopping in for a visit with Butch at last year’s CJ Cup. McIlroy, who finished (what was somehow a disappointing) third place in his 2021 debut, said that he’d worked with Harmon a bit, too.
“We spent about four and a half hours together going through everything in his swing,” Harmon told Sky Sports in November. “He came to see me because he just wanted to make sure he was on the right track.”
McIlroy added last week that Harmon’s wealth of knowledge was a privilege to tap into.
“The one thing I love about Butch is he’s worked with so many players,” McIlroy said Thursday. “So, if you’re trying to explain to him, ‘Look, I’m trying to do this or I’m trying to create that feeling,’ the database of players that he’s worked with over the years, he could say, ‘Well, Freddie Couples felt this, or Tiger did this or DJ felt that. It’s always nice to have that reference.’”
But McIlroy reasserted his commitment to lifelong coach Michael Bannon, who he got to see upon his return to Europe. Long-distance relationships have been under particular strain over the past year, but theirs is a partnership strong enough to transcend time and space.
Another top pro is more clearly working with Harmon: Danielle Kang, who was on the phone with him shortly before the playoff on Sunday afternoon. But the coaching situations of her two playing partners are in far more flux. Nelly Korda told reporters on Friday that she’s back to working with longtime instructor David Whelan.
She had been working with swing coach Justin Sheehan, but made the move directly after the CME Group Tour Championship. They’ve been specifically focused on a slightly steeper swing and reducing hip movement in her downswing. But like any strong relationship, this one is built on a foundation of trust:
“I just trust Dave so much,” she said. “I mean, he’s built my golf game. I’ve been with him since I was 15. I wouldn’t be where I am without him. He holds a special place in my heart. Always will. And I think the chemistry is obviously there and we work well together.”
That’s actually insightful, honest and clear. It presents a stark contrast to her older sister’s answer to the same question about swing instructors, which went like this:
Q. Who is your swing instructor right now?
JESSICA KORDA: (Shrugs shoulders).
Q. Don’t know? Don’t have one?
JESSICA KORDA: We’ll see.
So, there’s that. As a final note, Jason Day — who split with longtime swing coach Collin Swatton last summer — is now working with Bryson DeChambeau‘s coach, Chris Como, per golf Aussie-whisperer Evin Priest. (Maybe Tiger Woods was tired of the gig?)
And ’round and ’round the coaching carousel goes.
What’s that guy up to, anyway?
While many of us were still debating the finer points of HBO’s Tiger Woods documentary, an announcement from Team Tiger came in, reminding us that the man in question is still fighting the good fight: Woods had another surgery.
Because there’s not much to truly learn from those sorts of news releases, our best source in this matter is, strangely enough, Rory McIlroy, who offered some thoughts from Abu Dhabi:
“I’ve known for a while,” McIlroy said. (Any Tiger insider does well to remind you that he’s a Tiger insider.) “It happened on the 23rd of December. I’m obviously pretty close with him. So yeah, in his words, it was a small procedure, so I don’t think it’s anything that — obviously any time you’re being cut into, obviously try to avoid that as much as you can.
“But yeah, he was back on his feet the next day, so I don’t think we can read too much into it. It was just something that was a — I think they were just trying to clean a couple little bits up. Obviously he won’t be playing for the next couple of months, but he should be back for the Masters, if not before that. So yeah, I think he’ll be just fine.”
In other words, McIlroy is urging caution from a Tiger-loving public prone to overreaction.
“I mean, he won the Masters with four back surgeries, so there’s not much he can do,” he concluded. Fair point.
WHAT WE’RE WATCHING
Not just us, either …
I’m hardly the first one to point out just how good the European Tour’s latest feature video is — more than one million people have watched it on Twitter alone — but I wanted to recirculate it anyway just to reiterate its brilliance.
First off, getting some of golf’s most temperamental players to make fun of themselves for being temperamental is no easy task. Who knows how they’d react?! So just getting this one off the ground was a winner.
Secondly, the pros themselves are terrific. Droll, funny, self-effacing — they pull off a wide range and with good comedic timing, too. What’s especially good is just how real it is; they’re joking about very aspects of their professional personality. Martin Kaymer‘s cameo is my favorite bit. Strong execution. If you’ve not yet seen it, have a watch. And if you have seen it, watch again!
It’s worth noting that the video’s participants had quite a week in Abu Dhabi, too: Tyrrell Hatton lapped the field with a four-shot victory, then shouted out one memorable line afterward…
While Matt Wallace, who finished T7, clearly had the mantra top of mind, too:
Am I dumb for thinking that the filming of this video could have, in some small way, helped those players out this week?
WHAT WE’RE HEARING
And, in this case, what Danielle Kang is hearing …
We’ve all grown numb to the fact that top pros regularly shoot scores of six, seven, eight under (and ever better) and we’ve also grown numb to the fact that they do so while taking center stage as members of a large-scale television production with any number of extra distractions on hand.
For the most part, LPGA pros at this week’s Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions very much enjoyed mixing it up with the celebrities in the field. Jessica Korda cited a conversation with Aaron Hicks and Mardy Fish as helping her relax on Sunday afternoon, while Danielle Kang made it clear how much she loved playing with Lee Brice and Cole Swindell. But as the tournament’s conclusion drew closer, the presence of the amateurs often broke up the action, no doubt adding an extra challenge for viewers — and players.
Kang faced a couple particularly strange noise-related challenges. First there was a battle with a gas-powered golf cart at No. 16.
“The gas cart was — on that hole it was really irritating,” Kang said. “He kept accelerating right as I wanted to go, so I just stopped.”
And then there was her putt to win on No. 18 in regulation, which she lined up as a DJ blared music in the background. She wound up two-putting and heading to a playoff. Still, we’re not sure if she’ll be looking forward to the relative calm of a “normal” LPGA Tour event or if she’ll miss the star-studded vibe of the TOC. She did shoot 24 under, after all.
The question in this space last week was what we should expect from Justin Thomas‘ clothing future. We didn’t get any big-time answers, nor should we expect any, but it was interesting seeing Thomas show up in a mix of RLX and Peter Millar clothing.
He spoke about Ralph Lauren’s decision to part ways in a pre-tournament press conference, too:
“Obviously I was upset. But at the end of the day, they have that right. They had to make the decision that they had to make. I spoke with them along with all my sponsors. Although I apologized, it’s like it was then; it’s an opportunity for me to grow and I felt like it was something we could have done together and gone through that process. They just felt like they needed to move on. That’s exactly what I’m doing, as well.
“It was a great run that we had and a great partnership, but you know, things will work out on the best.”
A couple weeks after revealing Jon Rahm was joining the squad at TravisMathew, the brand announced another signing at this week’s American Express: Joel Dahmen. If Rahm is to serve as the brand’s top-tier rep, Dahmen serves a complementary role as the Tour’s relatable everyman. Check out the signing video:
LESSONS FROM PAULINA
This is unlikely to become a recurring segment.
This week, I dialed up a podcast I didn’t expect to: The Netchicks, hosted by Sara Gretzky and Natalie Buck. What’s the connection to the golf world? Well, Natalie is the daughter of sometimes-golf announcer Joe Buck, for one thing. But there’s more: Sara is married to Ty Gretzky, whose sister is Paulina, who is engaged to Dustin Johnson. If this feels a little bit tabloid-y, to you, bear with me. I promise we’ll bring it around. Paulina was last week’s guest on the show, and simply put, we never hear from her, even though she’s been a regular presence in the world No. 1’s life for the better part of a decade. Here are six quick takeaways from Paulina’s first podcast appearance:
1. She’ll watch golf on TV from home — as long as the volume is off.
“I’ll turn it on mute most of the time,” she said. “Because to listen to those men talk about him, I wanna go through the screen and grab them…”
2. She’d love to see more women out on the course.
“Women can sometimes get afraid of embarrassing themselves out there, and they should never,” Gretzky said. “You should watch a man when they’re hitting and they shank it, or they whiff the ball, or whatever it is …
“I don’t feel like they are embarrassed. That’s the best part about it. They just go out there and they at least try. I’d love to see every woman go out there and try.”
3. Dustin Johnson fancies himself a country singer.
“Dustin’s tried to sing,” she added. “He thinks he’s a country singer in the car. And I love everything about it. And he’s trying for the first time, so I’m all for it. I really think sometimes he thinks he’s Luke Bryan.”
4. Johnson is superstitious about winning.
This bit was fascinating because I’m always curious how those 18th-green family meet-ups are orchestrated, and Gretzky spoke about that.
“I’m not allowed to talk to him about winning,” she said. “I’m pretty calm because he’s calm, but I’m not allowed to say, like, ‘If you win today, want me to bring the kids down? Want me to not?’ He’s superstitious like that.”
5. She wanted to share publicly that she and Johnson aren’t yet married.
Again, this bit feels rather gossipy, but both Gretzkys said on the show that they wanted to address it and to have that discussion make the rounds, so here goes:
Johnson and Gretzky aren’t yet married, but they will wed at some point, she said, when the timeline makes sense. But she’s in no rush, because the two are “so in love” and share such a happy life. In the meantime, she wants to normalize “being just with kids and being happy! I don’t want anything from Dustin other than I love him.”
6. She’s ready to cast the movie for Johnson’s life.
“His story is phenomenal, and nobody knows it,” Gretzky said. “Bradley Cooper will play Dustin, and Blake Lively will play me.”
See you at the theaters.
(You can listen to the full pod, including an absolutely encyclopedic Real Housewives breakdown, here.)
What’s a golf course really made of, anyway?
I can’t stop thinking about this de-sodded tee box and its skeleton corridors of broken tees. It’s post-apocalyptic. Ghostlike. Unsettling. But I can’t look away — so now I’m making you look, too:
Three things to watch this week.
1. The Farmers Insurance Open is back, and with it comes CBS’s new broadcast. Keep your eye out for new graphics packages and a new full-time leaderboard, as well as your ear out for new theme music.
2. Rory McIlroy’s 2021 PGA Tour debut. He showed strong form in Abu Dhabi, but there’s no doubt the world No. 7 has his sights set on another strong run of form on Tour this year.
3. This is a throwback, but in honor of the late Larry King, how about a rewatch of his 1998 interview with Tiger Woods? It’s impossible to imagine now, but Woods joined King for an in-depth interview, stayed on for the full hour and even fielded phone calls. Watch and enjoy.
We’ll see you next week.