BELLEAIR, FLORIDA | There’s redemption. And then there was Sunday at the Pelican Women’s Championship.
Nelly Korda played the 18th hole, the hardest hole on the Pelican Golf Club, two times late on the last day – one in regulation and one in a playoff – and she birdied it both times, both by hitting perfect putts in the 15- to 18-foot range. One of those birdies got her into a playoff, a four-way affair with Lexi Thompson, Lydia Ko and Sei Young Kim. The other put the victory away, Korda’s fourth of the year (five if you count the Olympics gold medal) and put her in the driver’s seat for the Rolex LPGA Player of the Year award that will be settled this week in Naples, Florida.
But it was the 15 minutes before the two birdies that made this the comeback of the year and a moment that also will be replayed on highlight reels for the next 12 months.
The hole before the closer, the par-4 17th, Korda played like a human – a flawed, nervous, distracted golfer who loses confidence and concentration and falls into the depths of an unathletic spasm.
Most everyone knows how that feels; it’s the worst feeling in the world. A player is cruising along making no mistakes, driving it great, hitting greens, rolling putts with perfect speed, leaving stress-free tap-ins for pars. Then, like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky, comes the one thing that cannot be done. It’s the one shot that finds the worst place on the golf course. And the error is compounded with an attempt for a miracle recovery shot. You know, it’s the one a player ends up duffing in the bunker like a kid playing his or her first competitive round.
It gets worse from there. It’s an off-balance and confused feeling. Hearts start racing. Blasting out long means running a bogey putt just far enough by to be uncomfortable. Suddenly that 2-footer for double looks like a triple-breaker on a ski slope. It doesn’t stand a chance. The only shot that works is the tap-in for triple.
That’s what happened to Korda. From the middle of the 17th fairway, she tugged a wedge that bounded down the steepest hill on the course. The top of the flagstick was barely visible from where she stood. And that was only because it was close to the back edge, leaving her about 12 feet to work with. From there, the hole went exactly as described above. Flub. Chunk. Putt, putt, putt. Smooth 7. She went from tied for the lead to two shots behind and in fourth place with one hole to play.
Then came the gutsiest performance of the year from any player. Thompson pulled her approach just left of the 18th green in regulation. Ko and Kim were in the clubhouse at 17 under. That is when Korda reeled off the first of her two closing birdies, ripping driver in the middle of the fairway, hitting a short iron just below the hole and rolling it in.
“You don’t want to know what I said as I was walking from the tee shot to the iron shot on 18 after what happened on 17,” Korda said. “There were a lot of F-bombs, a lot of anger. I needed to get that out.”
Thompson failed to get up and down, which was no surprise given how difficult the shots were from above the hole on 18. And she didn’t make a birdie putt in the playoff from a similar distance.
Korda sealed the deal with a good drive, a great iron shot and the kind of putt she, and we, will remember for a long time to come.