Good as gold! Nelly Korda bolsters already banner season with Olympic glory

Nelly Korda

Nelly Korda celebrates her win by taking a bite out of her gold medal.

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With just two holes left to play in the final round of the women’s Olympic golf competition, the winds picked up and dark clouds gathered, signs of an approaching tropical storm. Rain fell and a weather-delay siren sounded. A tense wait followed. When play finally resumed, nearly an hour later, another force of nature seized the day.

In a gutty, patience-testing performance that reaffirmed her place atop the women’s game, Nelly Korda outlasted a cluster of contenders to claim gold at Kasumigaseki Country Club, just north of Tokyo. Her closing 69 gave her a four-round total of 17-under par that put her one stroke clear of both Lydia Ko of New Zealand and Mone Inami of Japan, who each shot 65. The two runners-up then met in a playoff, with Inami claiming silver to Ko’s bronze.

Korda’s win — the 100th medal claimed by an American athlete in the 2020 Games thus far — gave the United States a golden sweep in golf, coming on the heels of Xander Schauffele’s victory in the men’s event last Sunday. It also added sparkle to an already glittery season for the 23-year-old Korda, who has captured three LPGA titles in 2021, including a major, while rising to the world No. 1 ranking.

“With sports, it’s so different because you’re constantly looking ahead to your next event,” Korda told Golf Channel. “It never really gets to kind of sink in. But when I do look back, it’s just crazy.”

It was nearing 1 a.m. in her home state of Florida when Korda’s clinching par putt dropped on 18. She exhaled and fist-pumped, a quiet punctuation to a draining, drawn-out day that began earlier than originally planned. Concerned that the final round might be washed out, event organizers scrambled to get the most out of the calm before the storm by pushing starting times forward and switching to a split-tee format that sent threesomes off both the 1st and 10th holes.

Though the day dawned still and became partly sunny, the skies were fooling no one. You could see on the doppler where the storm was headed. You got a sense where the gold was going, too. Since seizing the lead in the second round with a searing 62, Korda had looked at ease and in control, splitting fairways, firing at flags and leading the field in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green. So poised was her performance that even a relatively uninspired third round had yielded a two-under 69. 

She entered the final round three shots ahead of her closest pursuer, Aditi Ashok of India, and five ahead of Ko, who wasn’t buying that the gold was out of reach.

“I mean, Minjee [Lee] proved that you can be 10 shots behind and win a major championship,” Ko said after her third round, referring to Lee’s comeback at last month’s Evian Championship. “That’s the crazy thing about golf that you never know until that last putt drops on the last hole.”

Ko came to prominence at such a young age that it’s easy to forget she’s only 24. She has seen some things. A silver medalist at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, she was also a two-time major winner and the top-ranked player in the world before she stumbled down a rabbit hole of swing changes and injury, plunging as far down as 55th in the world rankings. Even at her lowest, she never seemed to lose her sunny outlook. Now, buoyed by work with Sean Foley, a connection made during the pandemic, she has regained her form while maintaining her upbeat demeanor. Rarely has such a cold-eyed killer gone about their business with such a friendly face. 

On Saturday, she had cause to smile. Playing with Korda and Ashok in the final threesome, Ko birdied four of the first five holes. Korda, meanwhile, idled in neutral. By the time the final group reached the par-3 7th, Ko had cut the lead to two, a dramatic turnabout that grew more so a few beats later when Korda tugged her tee shot, flubbed two chips and walked off the 7th green with a double-bogey 5. She, Ko and Ashok were now tied.

For the first time in the tournament, Korda looked rattled. When she found a fairway bunker on her next swing, an opportunity lost on a reachable par 5, it seemed like she was destined to come unraveled.

But that’s the crazy thing about golf.

It proved to be the moment when she found herself instead, recovering from the sand and grinding out a birdie. Then she birdied the next. And the one after. Three in a row. When Ko bogeyed the par-3 10th from a green-side bunker, Korda’s lead was back to three.

Others, meanwhile, had scratched their way into the mix. Emily Pedersen of Denmark made a bid for the podium, as did Hannah Green of Australia. Also hanging tough was Ashok, perhaps the tournament’s greatest revelation, an underdog with a gritty, endearing style of play. Never a big hitter, Ashok arrived in Tokyo having lost 15 yards off the tee due to a strength-sapping bout of Covid earlier in the season. But her touch was intact. Dead last in the field in driving for the week, Ashok was also dead first in Strokes Gained: Putting. Her pairing with Korda made for a striking contrast. Routinely outdriven by more than 40 yards, Ashok hit hybrids and fairway woods to Korda’s mid-irons. Often, her approaches lacked the loft to hold the firmed-up greens, but her wedges and flat-stick saved her. Over and over. Her game was relatable, easy to root for. There are many ways to get it done.

“She might have missed out on a medal,” Golf Channel’s Rich Lerner said when Ashok’s long birdie bid on 18 went begging, leaving her one shot shy of bronze. “But no one has gained more fans.” Judging by the Twittersphere, he might be right.

If fans had been allowed, though, no player would have drawn more cheers than Inami, who came closer than anyone to snatching the gold from Korda. Aiming for a podium that her countryman Hideki Matsuyama hadn’t reached, Inami mounted a spirited charge, reeling off five birdies on the back nine. The last, on 17, came right on the heels of the weather delay and brought her into a deadlock for the lead. But the tie was short-lived, as Inami bogeyed 18 after her approach found a fried-egg lie in the face of a steep, fronting bunker, dropping her one back.

It fell to Korda to bring it to the finish. A fast player, Korda can get fidgety when forced to wait, and she’d just been iced for an hour by the weather. But her final hole went without a hitch: driver, 8-iron, two-putt for the win, a routine par that was anything but in the circumstances. From behind the 18th green, fellow Olympian Jessica Korda rushed out to hug her kid sister, 23 and just getting started, already taking the game by storm.

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