Try to keep up with the Kordas: Jessica and Nelly make their mark in a family of star athletes
Editor's Note: This cover story first ran in the December 2020 issue of Golf Digest, before Nelly Korda won the gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics.
From a distance, Jessica (left) and Nelly Korda can be tough to tell apart on the golf course. The sisters stand nearly six feet tall and have similarly picturesque swings. When they played together in the 2019 Solheim Cup at Gleneagles, their matching uniforms made it even harder to spot who was who. Though Team USA lost the cup, the Korda sisters, when paired together, didn’t have a match go beyond the 14th hole. Their performance felt like a glimpse into dominance to come.
Jess, 27, and Nelly, 22, are comfortable around each other—they did this interview sharing a chair—and they’re part of perhaps the most athletic family in America. Both parents, Petr and Regina, played professional tennis, Petr winning one Grand Slam title, the Australian Open in 1998, when he reached No. 2 in the world. Petr and Regina played under the Czech flag, but the Kordas have been in the United States fulltime since 2008. Jess and Nelly’s younger brother, Sebastian, 20, plays tennis professionally. This year, he broke through at the French Open, making it to the fourth round before losing to champion Rafael Nadal.
In this interview, the sisters talk about how the siblings support each other, the advice they get from their parents, and what it’s like to play on tour with a sister.
Why golf? Did your parents play?
Jess: My dad always said back in the day that golf was a retirement sport. We’ve obviously completely changed his mind.
Nelly: When Dad retired from tennis, he played.
Jess: Yeah, he started playing more when I started playing more. We played at the same club in the Czech Republic. We worked with a coach, Jonathan Yarwood. That was when he was with Michael Campbell, right before Campbell won the U.S. Open . So my dad was on the range with Cambo and JY, and he got this behind-the-scenes look at how professional golfers work, and he really enjoyed the process of it. I got into a golf group and loved the competition and games. Then Nelly came along and got into it, too.
Nelly: I didn’t play that many events, though. I didn’t play in a girls’ junior and only played one U.S. Women’s Am.
Jess: Well, yeah, because we were still spending our summers in Europe.
Watch the video below to see our cover shoot with our stars, Jess and Nelly Korda.
What was it like growing up in the Korda household?
Jess: We were put in a bunch of sports from a young age.
Nelly: My brother played hockey. I ice skated, did gymnastics a bit. Jess is five years older, so when she got serious about golf, I started taking lessons. I started getting serious around 6, taking lessons three or four times a week.
Jess: I was already out there all day—my parents were watching me practice—so they needed her to do something, too.
Nelly: They loved it because we were outdoors and being active. Anything where we were outdoors, they were very happy.
Who’d you play with while you were in Europe?
Jess: I played for the Czech National team until I was 15.
Nelly: We played with our cousin.
Jess: She’s five days older than I am. We played club matches. I played my first World Am when I was 13, under the Czech flag. It was in South Africa, which was amazing.
Nelly: I didn’t get those experiences.
Jess: Our first full year in the States wasn’t until 2008.
While you chose golf, your younger brother chose tennis. What was it like watching him at the French Open this year?
Nelly: Very stressful. We changed our practice-round tee time at the ShopRite to be able to watch him. This year, we have to make tee times for practice rounds, so we were scrambling around, trying to change our tee time, so we could watch.
Jess: Literally texting other players, like, Are you playing 18? Can we switch with you? And then texting the LPGA Tour because there are so many COVID rules, seeing if we could even do that.
Nelly: On Sunday, I was driving to the course when he was finishing up against Nadal. I was very stressed. I was like, My heart rate shouldn’t be this high before I’m even stepping on the range.
Jess: It was Friday when he won big, and we showed up and were like, OK, we need to calm down. I had a chamomile tea before my round.
Nelly: We had the same tee time but off opposite sides, and Jess was driving in front of me, and I started flashing my lights when he won.
Were you communicating with him throughout that week? Do you usually talk when you’re all competing?
Jess: We all communicate every day.
Nelly: We have a group chat.
Jess: We call it The Trio. We also have a group chat on Snap and Instagram.
Tennis and golf are different, but do you talk about the mental side of your sports?
Nelly: It’s just about being there for each other.
Jess: Being professional athletes, you know what they’re feeling the night before a big match or round. You’re more just there to distract each other. If I want to talk to Nelly about being super nervous, she’ll say, “You’ll be fine. You know the weather, you know the course.” She’ll just go through it with me. Or, we’ll be like, “Did you see these cute shoes?” Or with our brother, “Did you see this meme?”
Nelly: When we don’t do well, we’re there for each other. Jess and I always have a long text written up to Seb when he doesn’t play that well.
Jess: We’re all there for each other, even if it’s a simple, “No matter what, I’m always proud of you.”
Your parents both played professional tennis. What do you talk to them about regarding sports?
Jess: A lot of the time it’s bouncing ideas around. Like, “Mentally, I lost it between this and this hole; what are your thoughts?”
Nelly: We’re always trying to figure out ways to get better. “Perfect” and “sports” just don’t go together. We’re always trying to evolve and get better.
What’s the best piece of advice they’ve given you?
Jess: This was really recent, but our dad was saying to enjoy every moment. I think sometimes we forget . . .
Nelly: To be present.
Jess: Yeah, like, you win a tournament, and then the next week is another event, so you have only a couple hours to really enjoy it. But what you’ve achieved is amazing. Really giving time to experience the highs and lows, that’s something Dad’s been reiterating a lot lately.
Nelly: They’re constantly learning, too. Sport is changing. From the time they played, what athletes do now is completely different.
Jess: They’re learning with us.
Nelly: My parents have always been very big on being humble.
How do you balance being sisters and competitors?
Nelly: You’re always competing against the golf course, my parents always said.
Jess: People like to put us against each other all the time to see if they can spark a rivalry or something. But we just keep disappointing everybody.
Nelly: We have little side bets here and there. At the end of the day, we want the best for each other, even though we want to beat each other as well. You go into every tournament wanting to win.
When did you realize you wanted to be a professional golfer?
Jess: I was 15 years old, playing in my first U.S. Women’s Open , and I was absolutely star struck. We got so much swag at registration. I was like, Whoa, is it like this every week? It’s not. [Laughs.] The crowds, signing autographs hole to hole. I worked so hard every year just to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open again.
Nelly: I didn’t realize what women’s golf was back then—I was more just like, “Go, Jess!”
Jess: You were so little.
Nelly: But it was the same for me when I played my first . I think the U.S. Open holds such a special place in our hearts because it was our first LPGA Tour event and we both made the cut our first time. Any major is a major, but the one that holds a significant meaning to me is the U.S. Open.
Jess: It’s where our love—well, not love …
Jess: Yeah, desire. It’s where our desire for professional sports started.
If you weren’t professional golfers, what would you have done?
Nelly: I’d want to stay in the sports industry. I don’t know, Jess and I like arguing, so maybe I could be a lawyer.
Jess: We like to argue? You like to argue. [Laughs.] I would love to stay in sports, too. Maybe marketing with a cool company.
Nelly: She knows how to sell.
Jess: If it’s a good product and I use it, it’s the easiest thing for me to talk about. If I went to college, it would’ve been for communications or marketing. I could be an agent.
You’re still both very young, but have you thought at all about what you’d want to do after golf?
Jess: I like real estate, interior design, flipping. I love doing that stuff. We just bought a rental property, gutted the whole place. It looks so good now. Anything creative, I think I’d love.
Nelly: I haven’t even thought about it.
Jess: You’re too young.
You took different paths to the LPGA Tour, Nelly playing Symetra and Jess joining the LPGA right away. Why the difference?
Nelly: I was 16 when I petitioned our commissioner to go to Q school. Jess was 17 when she petitioned, but she was turning 18 by the time the season started. I would’ve been way too young and never would have been approved. So, when I petitioned, I petitioned for Symetra Tour. We thought it was better to go through one year of playing in the States professionally than going to college. I’m very grateful that I did that. I went from playing seven events a year to playing 22 events. Every shot counts out there. It’s such a pressure year. I grew a lot out there.
Jess: It’s good to learn to play week in and week out, under the radar, instead of coming on the LPGA Tour as a true rookie. My rookie year sucked. It was miserable. I made no money. I was 92nd on the money list. I was the youngest. Lexi [Thompson] was Monday qualifying into events. It was just the two of us, and everyone else was in their mid-20s. Now, it’s way younger.
Nelly: The first half of my year on Symetra, I wasn’t playing well, I was not really enjoying it. But there’s that one event or that one round that changes everything. It was in 2012, in your second year on tour, in Australia, that really kickstarted you.
Nelly: It’s not easy on the lower tours because you’re not making any money. It’s not easy anywhere.
Jess: But being on the LPGA Tour as a young American, whether or not you want to read it, you know there’s extra attention. People don’t realize what being a true rookie is. How many weeks in a row have you really played? How many weeks have you been away from home? You haven’t played golf where you’re paying for entries, caddies, travel. It starts compiling unless you have a sponsor.
Nelly: And a lot of rookies don’t.
Jess: Parents start taking out second mortgages on their house to help them out.
Nelly: Symetra Tour entry fee is $500. Last place makes less than $500, so you’re not even breaking even. It’s a lot of pressure financially the first year.
Do you feel like you missed out on anything by not going to college?
Jess: All of my friends agree I wouldn’t survive. I’m a light-a-candle, read-a-book, listen-to-music kind of girl. Not the party-til-3, go-to-class, get-a-workout and successfully-play-golf kind of girl. I would fail miserably. I also wouldn’t like it if the coach told me to hit balls if I wanted to do short game. I don’t do well when people tell me I can’t do something when I know I need to go do it.
Nelly: I wouldn’t change the way I did it.
What’s a mistake in your career that you learned from?
Jess: I’ve booked flights to the wrong places.
Nelly: We were supposed to play a practice round together last year in Canada. I’m at the course, waiting for her. We have Find My Friends on our phones, and she’s like, “Check my location.” I check it. We were in Toronto. She’s near downtown, and our course was pretty north. She had gone to the qualifying golf course.
Jess: I’m not good at directions. It was a new golf course, and I looked at the fact sheet and clicked on the first golf course.
Nelly: Now she probably double checks.
Jess: Or I just don’t tell you. [Laughs.] We have an event in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and I booked a flight to Fayetteville, North Carolina. You honestly make so many mistakes.
Nelly: Like booking a car on the last leg of the flight.
Jess: Yeah, she’s booked cars when she’s landing because she forgets.
What’s the biggest change to your game or fitness that you’ve made in recent seasons?
Jess: I work with Kolby [“K-Wayne” Tullier], and we just try to prevent injuries. It’s such a repetitive motion, and since I’ve been swinging a club since I was 5 years old, and I’m 27 now, that’s a lot of years to swing a golf club. Trying to stay as healthy as possible while getting stronger where I need it.
Nelly: That’s it for most golfers. We’re not Bryson DeChambeau.
Jess: I’m not going to put on 40 pounds. That’s not cute. [Laughs.]
Nelly: It’s mainly about trying to prevent injuries. You leave for three weeks, and you kind of lose the tone in your muscles.
Jess: You’re not lifting.
Nelly: Yeah, so you get back, and you’re back at square one. You’re constantly trying to prep your body for the upcoming week. It’s a never ending cycle. For my swing, I haven’t made any big changes.
Jess: Old tendencies creep in.
Nelly: My swing gets long sometimes. We have a couple checkpoints we go over every time I’m back.
How important are world rankings to you? What would it mean to be the next American No. 1? [At the time of this interview, Nelly was ranked No. 3 in the world with three LPGA wins and Jess was No. 21 with five victories.]
Nelly: Honestly, we don’t really understand how the rankings work. We usually go off the money list.
Jess: Brooke Henderson and I were tied at Evian last year, and I dropped a spot and she went up a spot, and I’m like, I don’t get it.
Nelly: Obviously the reason we play golf is to be the best. It means a lot to us, but there comes a point where we just don’t understand how it works. When you’re on the top of the money list, you’re doing really good.
Jess: That’s what tells us what events we’re in for the next year. World rankings are all strength of field, which is different now with COVID, with top players not being here.
Nelly: Playing well and contending at majors is always a huge goal—the biggest goal as a golfer.
Jess: Putting yourself in position to win there.
Nelly: That’s where you’re going to get all the best players in the world coming in from every tour.
What was the most stressful moment of your golf career, and what did you learn from it?
Jess: Injuries. Having to withdraw out of Solheim Cup, majors, it’s tough because you want to play so bad. You push your body through anything. But when it comes to the point where you can’t feel your limbs, or you’re in so much pain you black out at impact, or you can’t even bend over to put your pants on. . . . You learn to breathe, be patient and take every day that you’re healthy as a major blessing.
Nelly: My most stressful was my final event in my Symetra season.
Jess: That was so stressful.
Nelly: I was 12th on the money list, I didn’t have a good first round, and I needed to jump to top 10 on the money list [to get her LPGA Tour card]. I had a really good last day, and I jumped from 12th to ninth. I don’t think I’ve ever been so stressed waiting after a round.
Jess: She also missed the green on the 18th hole and had to make an up-and-down to get her card.
Nelly: I learned that even when your head is spinning and your heart rate is at what feels like 170, you can lean on your game because the work is there; you can believe in yourself.
What are the best and worst shots you’ve hit?
Nelly: I was playing with Brittany Altomare last year at the Solheim Cup. We were 4 down, and we brought it back to 2 down going into 17, and won 17 and 18. It was a really long par 5 . . .
Jess: It was a par 3.
Nelly: Par 3; sorry. It was a really long par 3. The pin was in the back. I hit this 5-iron so fricking good, and it hits the pin and almost goes in, to tapin distance.
Jess: Not the hole-out to make the cut?
Nelly: Oh, yeah. I was playing a KLPGA event in Korea, 2018. I was below the cut line going into the last hole.
Jess: She needed a birdie.
Nelly: It’s a hole where you have to hit a perfect shot because there’s water to the right, bunkers to the left. I hit this shot, it was just an arrow at the hole.
Jess: Club twirl.
Nelly: I made an albatross.
Jess: Not only made the cut, but got into contention.
Nelly: I jumped from 70th place to probably 20th with that one shot.
Jess: What’s your most embarrassing?
Nelly: I have a lot of short putts I’ve missed.
Jess: I wouldn’t say that’s embarrassing. I’d say that’s normal.
Nelly: It’s pretty embarrassing.
Jess: I’ve shanked it and won. In the Bahamas. Shanked it O.B., actually. On TV. I’ve made a hole-in-one on tour, which is cool.
Nelly: She made an albatross this year.
Jess: Not like anyone saw it. Neither did I. I was looking for it long in the bunker. I don’t have one single shot that sticks out, but I do have a most embarrassing, and unfortunately it was on TV. When we played Dow last year, on 18, the par 3. My caddie puts the bag down, and I don’t even look, I see the one tee marker, put the tee in the ground, and Nelly’s caddie is like, “Uh, Jess?” I assumed I’d put it too far forward, so I moved it back. And Nelly starts laughing and says, “Jess, look up.” I’m nowhere near being between the tee markers. I was laughing so hard. Actually, when I said “ovulating” instead of “oscillating,” that was embarrassing.
Was that on TV, too?
Jess: Live coverage at the British . It was awful weather, and I was absolutely fried after the round. And they were like, “We need you now.” And I was like, “Please give me five minutes to decompress.” Nope. BBC News, live, and I say, “It was really tough conditions out there; the golf balls were ovulating on the green.” No one said a thing. I walked inside, and Jodi [Ewart Shadoff], she’d seen it already, texted me, You just said ovulating on live TV. I thought she was lying. She sent me the video, and I was crying laughing in player dining.
How is this year different on tour?
Jess: It’s really isolating. Our rules are very strict. You can’t do anything, can’t go to a restaurant—which is fine. You can’t have dinner with your friends. Not having a physio has been difficult on a lot of players on tour.
Nelly: With the travel and not getting enough sleep, your body every day is going through a lot of stress.
Jess: We don’t have locker rooms, so you’re finding random places to stretch.
Nelly: You get 15 minutes with the tour physio.
Jess: You can’t fix anything in 15 minutes. Little stuff like that makes it more difficult. It’s very lonely this year. We’re lucky we have each other. Not being able to hug your friends after a round, it’s odd. And not having fans, golf courses are so quiet.
Nelly: Not having the crowd to pump you up. Not having scoreboards is hard, too. Jess: You can look at your phone, but no one wants to whip out their phone in the middle of a round.
Nelly: At Arkansas, I don’t think Anna [Nordqvist] had any idea Austin Ernst was playing so well. It’s nice to know what’s going on.
Jess: The same thing happened to you at ANA. Nelly had no idea Mirim Lee chipped in on 18.
Nelly: I got up to the green and was like, Why are there two people at my number?
Jess: I think it’s definitely affected the outcomes of tournaments, not having leader boards or fans.
Nelly: Without fans, the pressure maybe isn’t as much. Jess: On the PGA Tour, that playoff between Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa. JT makes that long putt, think of the crowd and the energy you’d feel. You think Collin would be able to calm himself down to make that next putt? Stuff like that makes you think.
Amid all of the horrible things happening, people have found golf to be safe, and more people are joining the sport. Does it make you feel hopeful for the future of the game, especially the women’s game?
Jess: I think this time has made people slow down and appreciate spending time
with your family and being outdoors. I think in the past, work and staying indoors has become more popular, and now we’re getting back to the core of how things were before. I just hope it lasts.