LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA | Now, that was entertaining. Golf in January can sometimes be like smooth jazz or ocean sounds on the stereo: the perfect background for a long winter’s nap. But not last week at the opening event of the 2021 LPGA Tour season. The Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions was as fun as anything in sports.
Before getting to the weekend shootout, which included scoring records, career lows and a final-nine shootout among three stars – Jessica Korda, who won the tournament, sister Nelly Korda and Danielle Kang, all three of whom move the needle like few others in the women’s game – there was the event itself. The Diamond often gets compared to the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where a smattering of celebrities, led by an increasingly clownish Bill Murray, hack it up alongside professional partners. The Alfred Dunhill Links Championship also gets an occasional nod, although the amateurs there are more businesspeople or friends than actors, artists and athletes.
But Diamond is different. While the pros and celebrities play together, they are not partners. This is two tournaments in one – a stroke-play event for the LPGA Tour players and a modified Stableford competition for a celebrity field filled with country music singers, the odd actor or American television personality and athletes, active and retired, from other sports. A random glance down the celebrity leaderboard saw Mardy Fish (tennis), John Smoltz (Hall of Fame baseball pitcher) Colt Ford (country music singer), Mark Rypien (former American football quarterback) and Ray Allen (former professional basketball player). Even Annika Sörenstam, who was announced as a “retired LPGA player and 10-time major champion” made an appearance as a celebrity.
Every player talked about how much fun they had. On Saturday, for example, Brittany Lincicome said, “I've played with Colt Ford a few days. He is such a pleasure to play with. It's so cool to hang out with somebody you never met before, celebrities, talk about their jobs a little bit.
“I'm asking how many songs he's going to play tonight (at his socially distanced concert) and does he have a routine that he sticks to or does it change every day. It's just cool to pick their brains a little bit and not talk golf with everybody like we normally do.”
This might have been a glimpse into the future. Later this year, all three of these Americans will be teammates at the Solheim Cup. And if the Olympic Games happen, they will all be favorites.
But when it came to the golf, there was a lot to talk about. First, the nuts and bolts. Kang entered the final round with a two-shot lead after rounds of 64, 65 and 63 to equal the 54-hole LPGA Tour scoring record of 192. She maintained that margin until late in the back nine when both Korda sisters made runs. Jessica birdied 13, 14 and 16 to catch Kang at 23 under while Nelly birdied six of seven holes in the middle of her round to get to 21 under. All three birdied the par-5 17th and all hit it to 30 feet on the par-3 18th where all two-putted, although Kang had to make a 5-footer for par. Nelly Korda shot 64 and came up two shots short. Jessica Korda and Danielle tied at 24 under and went back to 18 for extra time. It ended when the elder Korda sister hit 6-iron to 25 feet and drained the birdie putt, punching the air and screaming “come on” loud enough to be heard back on the tee. Kang had a chance to tie from 18 feet but missed low and left.
Now to some of the drama, as if those particulars weren’t thrilling enough. Kang fired a career-low 63 on Saturday. And she was the second-best story of the day. That’s because the eventual tournament winner fired the fifth 60 in LPGA Tour history and the first since Paula Creamer did it in 2008. Korda played alongside NFL great Larry Fitzgerald and Fox News anchor Bret Baier in that third round. “It was absolutely amazing,” Baier said. “Toward the end we were nervous, so we tried to get out of the way as much as we could. I think she could have shot 59 really easy.”
Fitzgerald agreed, saying, “I've seen a lot of people playing well, but to see her demeanor, how she was completely engaged and staying in the moment was so much fun.”
Fun was the word of the week. For the first time in their careers, the Kordas were paired together in the final group of the final round of an event. It was only fitting that one of them would win. They were together in a threesome with the hottest and feistiest American player in the game. Kang won twice in 2020 with a mixture of stellar ballstriking and a “they can’t beat me” attitude, the latter of which is what her coach, Butch Harmon, told me was the biggest change in Kang in the past couple of the years.
But, by her own admission, she just didn’t have it on Sunday. “The only thing working was my putting,” Kang said afterward. That was evidenced on the final two holes where she had to make 5-footers to get into the playoff and she walked both of them in with a speed and confidence that would make Kevin Na stand up and applaud.
This might have been a glimpse into a future. Later this year, all three of these Americans will be teammates at the Solheim Cup. And if the Olympic Games happen, they will all be favorites. Until then, Kang will keep posting social media updates on her life in Las Vegas with her boyfriend, Korn Ferry player Maverick McNealy. And the Kordas will remain the most accomplished athletic family in the world with parents Petr (who turned 53 last Saturday) and Regina both world-class tennis players, and brother Sebastian making it to his first ATP finals last week. He is moving up on captain Mardy Fish’s short list for the U.S. Davis Cup team.
Scores might get better as the year goes on – although 24 under and a playoff is pretty stout – but as stories go, this season-opener will be tough to beat.