NAPLES, Fla. – The first time Nelly Korda came out to watch big sister, Jessica, play in a professional event was the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open at Interlachen. Nelly remembers standing outside the clubhouse watching Annika Sorenstam drain an eagle putt on the 18th green. Morgan Pressel took her on a tour of the locker room. Somewhere there’s a picture of Nelly wearing her dad’s tall socks, rolled down, on a dewy morning in Edina, Minn.
“Yeah, she was a local,” said Jessica. “Like I said, she’s been out here as long as I have.”
Nelly was born into tennis but raised on golf. And she’s a kid no more. The 21-year-old ended the 2019 LPGA season as the top-ranked American and No. 3 in the world.
For those who follow this tour closely, she’s the answer to the ever-popular question: Who’s the next big star?
That’s not wishful thinking, though Nelly certainly presents the complete package. Extraordinary genes, model-like looks, an enviable golf swing, firepower, intensity and an easy laugh. Despite all that she even seems relatable.
It’s all there.
“She’s not even close to playing her best golf yet,” said Stacy Lewis, the last American to reach No. 1. “The way golf courses are set up, they’re set up for the long bombers. They’re perfect for her.”
An unusually off ball-striking day in the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship kept an historic $1.5 million payday out of reach for young Korda, who fell short to Sei Young Kim.
But her third full season on the LPGA brought a good deal of growth.
She won twice, deepening that rich Korda legacy at the Australian Open. Father, Petr, won the 1998 Australian Open tennis tournament and younger brother Sebastian claimed the 2018 Australian Open junior tennis title. Jessica’s first LPGA victory came at the 2012 Aussie Open.
Nelly successfully defended an LPGA title for the first time in Taiwan, calling it a new kind of pressure. She fed off it, winning in a playoff.
“I would still like to minimize my mistakes,” said Nelly of what can improve in 2020. She plans to take two weeks off before pressing on.
Beyond all the physical attributes, the intangibles are what make Nelly a most intriguing prospect as No. 1. And she’s not afraid to say that being No. 1 is her No. 1 goal.
Players have been known to shy away from that kind of declaration past a certain age.
“Nelly seems to have more here to me,” said Judy Rankin, patting her heart.
It’s not easy being the first. Jessica, 26, blazed the family trail, set the bar and Nelly followed. There was a support system already in place when Nelly started traveling the world.
She even had a built-in Solheim Cup partner, and the sisters went undefeated together at Gleneagles.
Nelly spent a lifetime chasing Jessica. Now it’s Nelly who’s lighting the fire and, in a way, making the tour feel more like home.
“I feel more comfortable,” said Jessica. “I have my little sis with me. Again, I don’t have to – it’s not that you’re searching for friends or anything like that. It’s just that with her, like, you don’t have to be anybody. You don’t have to worry that you’re going to say the wrong thing. You don’t have to – you just know.”
It’s another layer of intangibles that makes their future so bright. The tour can be a lonely place.
Megan Khang became close friends with Nelly when they played together in the Junior Solheim Cup. They often room together on the road, watching scary movies to unwind.
Khang describes Nelly as the perfect example of work hard, play hard. That quiet fire inside the ropes melts away when it’s time to leave the office.
“She’s gonna hate me,” said Khang, “but she’s super goofy.”
As Sei Young Kim posed on the 18th green with the largest check in women’s golf history, Nelly playfully jogged back to the Ritz Carlton with Jessica’s Mini Goldendoodle, Charlie.
Nelly has only scratched the surface of her potential. The sports world will find out soon enough.