Nelly Korda competed last month in the PNC Championship alongside her father, former Australian Open tennis champion Petr, and said she did not have the off-season that many other players had.
It shows. The start of 2022 has been a continuation of the monster season she put together a year ago.
Korda, at 23 the No. 1 player in the women’s game, shot six-under 66 at Lake Nona to take a one-shot lead over Gaby Lopez and Danielle Kang at the midway point of the Tournament of Champions.
Through two rounds, Korda is at 10-under 134. Her older sister and the defending champion, 28-year-old Jessica, is two shots back.
Nelly Korda is accustomed to success at Lake Nona, where 11 months ago she captured the Gainbridge LPGA, which has moved venues this season. Korda has played six competitive rounds at the course and never shot worse than 69. Friday’s effort was her lowest to date. She birdied all four of the par 5s and finished with seven birdies, rolling in a 15-footer at No. 18 for the lead.
She is making the game appear pretty easy.
“I guess it’s very similar to the golf course I play at Concession,” Korda said of her club, which is roughly two hours away in Bradenton. “I kind of feel more at home here. I love the golf course, love the layout. I love that it’s a good challenge. The rough is pretty thick this year, too. So I kind of like to embrace those challenges.”
Lopez led after 18 holes and won this tournament two years ago. She overcame two late bogeys with a closing birdie of her own, chipping in at the par-4 18th for a 68. Given that it’s the first event of a new season, she said she can forgive the sloppy bogeys she made at the 15th and 17th holes.
Little was going to dampen Lopez’s mood in a grouping alongside one of her heroes, Annika Sorenstam, a 72-time LPGA winner and World Golf Hall of Fame member who is competing this week in the tournament’s 50-player celebrity division.
Sorenstam, a Lake Nona member, and former major league pitcher Mark Mulder, a former winner of the celebrity competition, have 68 points in the modified Stableford system, trailing former MLB right-hander Derek Lowe by a point.
Sorenstam, known as one of the more stoic competitors in the game, took notice that late bogeys in the round by Lopez, a two-time winner on tour, did little to rattle her demeanour. The payoff came at 18, where Lopez’s approach from a funky lie came up short of the green but she still found a way to make birdie. Lopez’s caddie told her afterward he had a feeling she was going to hole the chip.
“She seems quite poised, seems quite together,” Sorenstam said. “(The bogeys) didn’t really shake her too much, which I think is good. We all know there is going to be few bad shots here and there, maybe a bad bounce, but she just came back.
“She’s been here for seven years, she said, or her seventh season. I guess she’s getting a bit more mature knowing what it takes to be out here, and not getting too uptight when things don’t go your way.”
Kang, a runner-up to Jessica Korda in this event a year ago, posted a bogey-free 67, including a 7-iron from 155 yards that she holed for eagle at the par-4 seventh. Jessica Korda also shot a bogey-free 67.
Scoring could be more difficult on Saturday, when temperatures are expected to cool and rain could be a factor.
Lake Nona, which played host to the first Solheim Cup in 1990, is a course that commands a player’s attention, but with two days of only gentle wind coming off the lake, scoring conditions have been friendly. Nelly Korda hit a few loose shots, but her good stuff was very good.
She enjoys both the competition against many of the game’s top players (all 29 LPGA competitors are tournament winners) and the laid-back atmosphere of being paired alongside athletes and entertainers. She played Friday with former MLB players Lowe and Kevin Millar, two good friends.
“It’s kind of like the best of both worlds,” Korda said, “because you can keep it light and chat with them, but you also have to concentrate, execute the shots. At the end of the day this is an official event as well. I kind of separate the two. It’s also a lot of fun to walk down fairways and laugh non-stop.”
A five-time winner last year — including the Women’s PGA Championship and the Olympic gold medal — she is halfway to laughing herself all the way to the winner’s circle. Again.