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How Nelly Korda became the best – and most bankable – golfer on tour

May 16th, 2024

Nelly Korda went on a record-equalling streak of five consecutive wins at LPGA events – Getty Images/Andy Lyons

Nelly Korda’s run has ended, but her reign is just beginning. If the American has proven one thing over the past astonishing five months, it is that there is an undisputed No 1 in the women’s game with the style, strength and spirit to remain there for seasons to come.

Of course, in life, and especially in the vagary-filled madness of golf, there is no such thing as a forgone conclusion. Considering what she has been through, nobody needs to remind Korda of that, regardless of her record-equalling streak of five consecutive wins at LPGA events that ended in New Jersey last weekend. Yet the fact that, at the age of just 25, her rise to ascendancy actually seems overdue tells all you need to know about the scale of her talent.

“When Nelly first topped the rankings three years ago, when she won her first major [the Women’s PGA] and then Olympic gold, I thought she was going to dominate from then,” her coach David Whelan tells Telegraph Sport. “But things happen. There was the [blood] clot in her arm and the fears were about more than simply golf then, which was a big thing for a youngster to handle. Then when she did come back there was the back issue last year. She’s back at it now and I’ll say it, I do think she’ll go on dominating for some time.”

Whelan, a former European Tour winner from Sunderland, has known Korda since she was 15. Based in Bradenton, Florida, Whelan also coached her elder sister Jessica, who is herself a six-time winner on the LPGA Tour but has stepped away from the game after giving birth. Nelly’s parents – Petr, the 1998 Australian Open tennis champion, and Regina Rajchrtova, also a tennis pro (son Seb has gone down the tennis route and is ranked in the world’s top 30) – asked Whelan to help their daughter and he has worked with her off and on through the juniors and upwards, overseeing a swing that is known as the “Mona Lisa of Golf”.

“Nelly will be the first to say I changed her swing a lot, but she is very naturally talented,” he says. “Everyone talks about the aesthetic quality of her swing, but what I would say is that she has an incredible short game and that gives her a huge advantage on the LPGA Tour. I’ve never understood why the women are not as good as the men around the green, as it’s not about strength.

“The facilities at their events are not as good as the men’s, but The Concession course, where Nelly lives and which is near my home, has great facilities. I was lucky enough to know Seve [Ballesteros] and Nelly watches stuff and spends hours out there just trying these different shots. She’s not one for hitting 500 five-irons. She’s comfortable enough with that part of her game. And knows that ultimately beating balls won’t do her any favours.”

Whelan points to her putting as key in 2024. “If you look at the statistics they are not much different everywhere else, maybe a little bit, but on the greens she has been exceptional,” he says. “It’s a bit like Jack [Nicklaus] and Tiger [Woods]. They were the best putters and with their long and short games they knew if they were to have even an average putting week by their standards they’d be up there and probably winning. That must give you huge confidence.”

Korda’s mental conditioning has also been glaringly apparent as she has brought the rest to their knees. As an analyst for the Golf Channel, Karen Stupples, the 2002 Women’s Open champion from Kent, enjoyed a front-row seat for the quintet of victories.

Nelly Korda celebrates winning the T-Mobile Match PlayNelly Korda celebrates winning the T-Mobile Match Play

Korda celebrates winning the T-Mobile Match Play – Getty Images/Orlando Ramirez

“There’s something like a perfect mix going on, because Nelly not only has the swing, the great athletic ability and the vision and touch, but also has the strength of psyche,” Stupples says. “It’s the resilience. Without that you can’t get over the humps, no matter how great your swing or ball-striking or putting or whatever.

“Look at what Nelly has done this year and it is quite remarkable. She won first up in January, then took off seven weeks, came back and got straight back on the winning trail. There was adversity in that run. Two of those titles were won in play-offs, then there was awful weather to cope with and a match-play event thrown in.

“To cap it all she went to the major [Chevron Championship] and with all the focus on her and pressure of tying the LPGA record [for winning streaks] with two legends [Annika Sorenstam and Nancy Lopez], she came through. There’s a quiet but extraordinary self-belief there. Nelly trusts she can win and is in her element.

“I was talking to her on the range at Phoenix [for the Ford Championship] and the conditions were atrocious and while the others looked gloomy, she had this big smile on her face as she was telling me, ‘I love my job, love it. Can’t wait to get out there’.

“She is living her dream whatever Mother Nature is doing and, let’s face it, her family’s dream, because they are all winners.”

This is not merely a personal or familial success, however, but a victory for the LPGA Tour. As Stupples says “the female game has been desperate for eyeballs” and in “Nelly the Elegant” there is the marketeer’s dream. That has helped make her the top-ranked golfer on Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-paid female athletes at 11th with estimated earnings in 2023 of $8.2 million (£6.6 million) – and $6.5 million of that came from her impressive portfolio of sponsors. Her attendance at the recent Met Gala, the glamorous fashion event hosted in New York, also helped raise her and golf’s profile.

“It was a big moment, because it was mainstream and when you see our world No 1 alongside celebrities who are incredibly famous that garners a lot of attention,” Stupples says. “We don’t get exposure like this very often and it is a massive window of opportunity. You know, there’s talk of Nelly being women’s golf’s Caitlin Clark [the basketball player who has attracted unprecedented TV figures].”

Of course, there is danger in that. Stacy Lewis, the Solheim Cup captain, has opined that to capitalise on the interest in women’s sport, Korda should increase her media load and do at least a few hours a week. But Whelan insists there has to be a balance.

“I used to say that every logo comes at a price and that the sponsors will require her time,” he says. “But the good thing now is that her profile’s so big she can say what she is and isn’t doing. It’s the same with the publicity stuff.”

Stupples concurs: “You can understand the need to make the most of all this, but you don’t want to hinder her greatness in the process. Nelly’s not fame-thirsty. There’s a natural shyness and I think for a lot of great players there is that type of personality, because that’s what draws them to golf in the first place. This is a balancing act and for the LPGA Tour it is important they get it right, because Nelly is only going to get bigger and bigger.”

As a grizzled veteran, Whelan is willing to add the caveat that “nothing’s certain” and also points to an immediate challenge for Korda as she heads towards what could be a magical summer with the defence of her Olympic gold in Paris.

“Because of the sporadic nature of the campaign so far, with the events not happening in bunches, the very best of the Koreans haven’t travelled over here to America as much,” he says. “But now, with the US Women’s Open at the end of the month and then a proper run of events they will come over and this will be a task for Nelly. She’ll rise to that, though, and I think she might have a couple more majors in her in this campaign.

“There’s the Olympics, of course, but for me the icing on the cake would be the Open in St Andrews. The Home of Golf. That would take her to another level again.”

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