After Nelly Korda’s heartbreak, a 4-word conversation told us everything
CASARES, Spain — Nelly Korda stood alone, quietly, on the wrong side of a storybook ending.
On a brilliant Spanish evening, the world around her had just exploded into chaos. Strangers frolicked in the grass. The ground shook from a deafening roar. Camera lenses widened, trained on someone else for the first time all day.
In every direction she looked, heartbreak looked back. So for a long while she didn’t look anywhere at all, staring into the abyss as the failure pounded in her ears.
We love sports because of moments like Sunday at the Solheim Cup. There’s no writer who could’ve scripted a better ending than Carlota Ciganda, Spain’s native daughter, stuffing approach shots on consecutive holes to defeat the most gifted golfer in the world and retain the Cup for Team Europe. And there’s no writer who could adequately capture the depth of the heartbreak felt in that moment by her opponent, Nelly Korda.
Korda said nothing for the longest time after Ciganda’s two-footer on the 17th ended the match and the Cup, leaving her in defeat on both counts. (The match ended in a 14-14 tie, but Team Europe retained the Cup thanks to its victory in Ohio two Septembers ago.) As Ciganda celebrated triumphantly, Korda’s teammates ran to embrace her, but it was no use.
Nelly was already beyond consolation and, for the time being, beyond words.
THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE a legacy-altering week for Korda — not that she’d admit as much.
She arrived in Spain fully healthy for the first time in forever and riding a wave of newfound cache. Suddenly, she was part of the Solheim Cup Old Guard; her three previous Cups outweighed more than half the U.S. side.
“I think we’re all equals here,” she said from the podium on Wednesday, demurring the suggestion she thought of herself as a “leader.”
Once play began, though, the truth was glaringly obvious: Korda was one of the American side’s most important voices, even if she didn’t exactly relish the opportunity to say so. Her teammates followed her footsteps everywhere they could. And in the rare hours she wasn’t playing, Korda spent her time surveying the action from a golf cart, looking every bit a player-captain.
On the course, Korda formed a relentless alternate-shot pairing with Allisen Corpuz that dragged the U.S. to two early victories on Friday and Saturday. Nelly’s onslaught of booming drives, flushed approaches and holed putts provided a prudent reminder that her skillset remains untouchable at its highest peak.
“That drive on 1…whoa,” Corpuz said to no one in particular, hours after Korda blasted a tee shot from 280 yards to 10 feet.
But it was what came after that action that proved most revealing. As the two golfers walked off the course after their second victory on Saturday — a 5 and 3 waxing that featured seven birdies — Nelly’s leadership style suddenly came into sharp view.
“I learned that I’m a lot better under pressure than I thought —,” Corpuz said, turning to Korda to deflect the praise.
“Yeah she is,” Korda interjected, practically tossing the spotlight back to Corpuz, who smiled.
“Yeah, but my hands are shaking.”
Nelly grinned back.
“It doesn’t look like it.”
When Saturday evening’s singles lineups were released, it was no surprise to see Korda in one of the anchor spots. She’d been the backbone of the team all week. Now it was time for the team to deliver her a chance.
HEARTBREAK CAME QUICKLY ON SUNDAY. Quickly enough that Korda likely never saw it coming.
Home favorite Carlota Ciganda led nearly the whole way through their singles match, riding the momentum of a rabid Euro crowd and Korda’s surprisingly balky putter all the way to a three-up lead through eight holes. But then Nelly started coming, sniping back-to-back wins on the 9th and 10th to cut the deficit to one. On the 15th, Korda brought the match back to even, unleashing an uncommon fist-pump as she rolled in a par putt for the win.
As she walked to the 16th tee box, she ran into her teammate, Danielle Kang, who brought news: the cards had fallen exactly how Korda wanted — the Solheim Cup would come down to her and Ciganda’s last three holes.
“Let’s f—ing go,” Kang had practically yelled.
Korda pumped her fist again. It was time for a storybook ending.
Fifteen minutes later, Kang’s expletives came for a different reason. Ciganda had just stuffed approach shots on consecutive holes. Now, with Ciganda staring down a three-footer for birdie on the 17th hole, the Americans needed a miracle just to extend the match.
Korda hit a solid approach on the 17th and wound up in the short rough just right of the flagstick. She circled her second shot for a long while, finally settling on a kind of slowly dying wedge shot from close range.
She hit it perfectly, watching as it slowly tumbled toward the hole. Kang let out a gasp.
“That looks good.”
SUDDENLY, A FIGURE APPEARED IN FRONT OF NELLY KORDA.
It was early in a brilliant Spanish evening, and the Korda had just lost the Solheim Cup. Her chip to extend the match had lipped out, sending Nelly to her knees. She’d holed the comebacker for par, but then Ciganda drained the birdie putt in front of her. After a polite hug and congratulations, the party had begun. On the other side of the green, Nelly had fallen silent.
This Solheim Cup had ended in a failure — a big, visible failure. But as her father and several of her teammates tried (and failed) to console her, I was struck by the advice I’d heard Nelly give her teammates just 24 hours earlier.
“It’s just the process of sports,” she’d said of matches won and lost. “Learning to listen to yourself, and knowing that it’s okay to make mistakes because no matter what you can always bounce back.”
In a strange schedule twist, that is more true today than ever. The Americans will have the chance to bounce back when the Solheim Cup is held again in just 12 months in Virginia, and this time, there will be no mistaking who is leading the American side.
On any other Sunday, Korda might have sulked for a long while, but on this Sunday she was interrupted by Megan Khang, the sprightly soul of this American team. Nelly tried to push her away, but Khang wouldn’t listen.
Finally, for the first time since it all ended, Korda spoke.
“F–k,” she said in a tone that sounded like an apology.
Khang stopped her, then gave her a hug.
“I won’t let you.”