SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — Nelly Korda is locked in.
Like REALLY locked in.
It’s Saturday at the U.S. Women’s Open, but it could be anywhere in the world. In this moment, there is Nelly Korda and there is the task at hand. Nothing else.
She walks in tall, calculated strides, her shoes piercing the earth with a precision that suggests there’s an advantage to be gained from the ground beneath her.
Suddenly, she turns and takes two more careful strides forward, reaching down and pulling out a small chunk of turf.
She rubs her thumb over her forefinger, watching emotionlessly as blades of grass fall behind her.
The wind is whipping now on the 5th hole at Pine Needles, and it’s about time for Nelly to mount a charge.
Nelly Korda’s superstar status has, to this moment, been restrained within the borders of women’s golf. Before she was Nelly, she was the latest teenage phenom; one-half of the LPGA’s brightest sister duo; winner at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship; a World No. 1.
But at the U.S. Women’s Open, it’s clear her stardom has shifted. There are a few theories as to the catalyst — the gold medal triumph in Tokyo, the four-win 2021, the Forbes ’30 under 30′ honors — but it’s not difficult to see the reaction.
The swarm around Korda at Pine Needles on Saturday afternoon carried a decidedly different tenor than the galleries that came before (or after) it. Fans pressed against the ropes to grab a photo, screamed her name as she walked by, and followed her in galleries that looked (and sounded) an awful lot like those following the biggest stars of the men’s game.
“It was really cool,” Korda said afterward. “Honestly, super special. I don’t think I’ve ever had that big of a crowd following me at a Women’s Open or in general on a Saturday, not even being in the last pairing.”
For the game’s biggest player in its biggest event, the fan reaction was striking. It was also moving, considering that just a few months ago, she wondered the next time she’d be hearing from them at all.
It was a rainy morning in mid-March, the Friday of the Players Championship, when Korda’s arm began to swell. She called her doctor, who advised her to visit the Emergency Room as a precaution.
Not long after, Korda was diagnosed with a blood clot in her subclavian vein. Doctors advised her that she would have to undergo surgery to remove the clot, which would take her away from golf for the foreseeable future.
She rehabbed the injury for the better part of three months, slowly regaining her form at her home in Florida with the help of her swing coach, Jamie Mulligan. Finally, in late-May, she shared an Instagram announcing her return.
“See you guys @uswomensopen next week.”
Korda arrived in North Carolina with uncertain expectations. Her tempo felt good, but she hadn’t played a tournament round in more than four months. She tried her best to embrace the unknown, stamping her yardage book with “Be Proud. Be You.” and “Chin Up, You Got This!”
Once play began, though, Nelly was her regular old self — smashing drives and smoothing irons with her blissful, effortless swing. Well, except for one thing. While her notorious intensity returned, it was joined by a newfound sense of purpose.
“I’m just happy to be out here,” she said. “I’m doing what I love and I’m out here in the heat competing at the U.S. Women’s Open, and a couple months back I wasn’t sure if I was going to be doing that. So I’m just grateful.”
She played her opening two rounds at three-under, and entered Saturday at Pine Needles on the outskirts of contention.
After a birdie on the 1st, Korda began the long walk out from the clubhouse. Before long, her meticulous strides brought her to the furthest point on the property: the tee box on No. 5.
The 188-yard par-3 is beefy, and on Saturday it plays into a stiff wind. Most competitors have played a hybrid or a wood off the tee, but not Nelly. She’s stuck between two irons, and when Andrea Lee’s tee shot falls well short of the putting surface, she makes up her mind.
She picks up her club and holds a low conversation with Jason McDede, her caddie. Eventually, the two come to an agreement, and Nelly carefully places her ball on the ground. Her eyes are locked on the target as her focus lengthens.
Quietly, she steps to the ball, drawing her club back to ankle height before returning it to its place at address. Then, in one smooth slash, she finally makes contact. The ball pierces through the air, tugging slightly toward the back-left flagstick.
Her only flicker of emotion is a clubtwirl, which brings the blade back to her hip. She likes it.
Eventually, the ball returns to earth some 10 feet from the flagstick. The crowd erupts. Without breaking her stare, Nelly picks her tee from the ground and hands her club to McDede.
Nelly’s Saturday won’t end in a charge. She makes a birdie on the 5th and eventually climbs all the way to 7 under — just a few strokes off the lead — but three consecutive bogeys close her round in a whimper. She enters Sunday nine strokes back of the lead, her championship hopes sufficiently doused.
When she makes it to the scoring area, she’s still frustrated by the way her round ended. But a larger part of her is thrilled. She’s here, playing the biggest tournament in women’s golf, realizing in real time that she’s the biggest attraction her sport has had in some time.
Does Nelly Korda enjoy the challenge?
“Yeah, I definitely do,” she says, flashing a smile. “I didn’t really enjoy the challenge on my last three holes, but I do, yeah.”
Perhaps the better question is: which one?
There’s not much Korda can’t do. In just a few short years, she’s become the top-ranked golfer in the world, won a major championship, drawn the attention of millions, and become something of an international celebrity … and she’s still only 23.
If there’s been one constant in her life, it’s her ability to dismantle the words we’ve used to define her. So maybe it’s time we stop restricting ourselves to words like “woman,” and start calling Nelly Korda what she is.
Golf’s next superstar.