How good was Nelly Korda in 2021, when she won four LPGA Tour events, including a major championship, and the gold medal at the Olympic Games? When she last competed on Feb. 2 of this year before being sidelined by a blood clot, Korda was No. 2 in the Rolex Rankings, and when she returns to action on Thursday in the U.S. Women’s Open Presented by ProMedica she will still be No. 2.
That’s how far Korda and Rolex No. 1 Jin Young Ko separated themselves from the rest of the competition in women’s golf. They are still the top two players in the world but for Korda, making the U.S. Women’s Open Championship her first event in four months is a daunting challenge, especially on a demanding layout like Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, where the brilliant Donald Ross greens require precise iron play.
“Super excited,” Korda said at Pine Needles about her return to the fray. “Feeling good. Yeah, everything is good. Took a couple months off, but body feels great, and I'm just so happy to be out.”
Korda, who was 8 years old when the U.S. Women’s Open was last played at Pine Needles in 2007, has gotten a taste of the challenge ahead in her practice rounds and is well aware that her return to competition will be a severe test combining a great golf course, the heat and humidity of the Sandhills of North Carolina and the demands of a USGA setup.
“I didn't want my first event back being the U.S. Women's Open,” Korda said. “I was just more thinking like I want to be 100 percent, and that's all I was thinking. It's really nice, beautiful, Donald Ross, small greens, lots of falloffs. The greens are definitely going to be hard this week. So making sure you hit your approach shots in and just give yourself some easier putts, two-putt par, and if you have a chance to go for it.”
Korda, who has seven career LPGA wins, including her first major at last year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, has found the U.S. Women’s Open an especially challenging assignment even before illness. In seven tries, the only time Korda has finished better than T-39 was T-10 in 2018, missing the cut the last two years. But her power off the tee should serve her well at Pine Needles, where having short irons into greens that require precise approach shots is a real advantage.
Korda came into the 2022 season with her eye on overtaking Ko as the best player in women’s golf. But after starting the year strong with finishes of T-4, T-20 and T-15 in her first three events of the year, Korda sensed that something was wrong.
“I was just feeling funny,” she said. “My [left] arm wasn't feeling too great. I listened to my body. I went to the ER, got some ultrasounds, found out that I had a blood clot, went back home and saw a specialist, Dr. Michael Lepore, he was great. Can't think of a better doctor to do the procedure. I've been good ever since.”
The road back to competitive golf has been methodical with the goal of protecting Korda’s long-term health. She slowly worked her way back into playing shape and feels she is now 100 percent.
“I did a lot, a lot of rehab and I worked,” Korda said. “I went actually out to California for a month, did rehab there, worked with my coach Jamie Mulligan. Wanted him to be there for when I first started hitting balls. It was around the time of probably the second LA event (the last week of April) that I started hitting balls. I started obviously gradually, really slow. I probably went like 60 percent. I was hitting like my 8-iron 100 yards to see how it was feeling, and then once I got the clearance from my doctor, then I was good to go.”
Korda, 23, has been around golf all her life and is already in her sixth year on the LPGA Tour. Part of what made her time away especially difficult was having her best friend – sister Jessica – out there playing while she was on the sidelines.
“It was actually really hard to watch,” Korda said. “I think I watched Jess's final round only at Chevron [where Korda, who has six LPGA wins, finished second]. But other than that, yeah, definitely – that one hurt a lot just because it was the last event, the last time there. But yeah, I've missed it so much. Definitely as I got closer to this week, I started finally hitting it a little longer, I think the juices started flowing a little bit more, but I'm so happy to be out here. I've missed everyone, and I'm just grateful.”
So what expectations can a player have when she makes her first event in four months the U.S. Women’s Open? Among the things that can’t be practiced on the range is the pressure of competition and the grueling toll of playing four consecutive days.
“To tee up and to hit my first shot on Thursday, that is as far as I'm looking right now,” Korda said. “I've been out of competition since early February, and I'm honestly just grateful to be out here. I'm going to take it one step at a time. I'm not expecting too much. Girls are already in the midst of their seasons and they have a bunch of rounds under their belts.”
This is a championship that has provided a difficult test for Korda in the best of years and she seems to have the proper perspective of the demands ahead in making it the site of her return to competition. When she speaks of that challenge it is with the wisdom only derived from experience.
“I think golf is a sport that really humbles you anyway, so I don't think I'll have an issue with that,” Korda said. “There is always a hiccup here and there in the season that really makes you step back and kind of respect the game. Again, it just humbles you, as well, and it doesn't make you too cocky.”
Nelly Korda has never shied away from a challenge, whether it was making the cut in the 2013 U.S. Women’s Open at the age of 14, getting her first LPGA win at 20, dominating in the Solheim Cup at 21 or winning her first major at 22. This week, her challenge is to return to competition at the U.S. Women’s Open – and she seems to be ready for that test.
Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.