Nelly Korda rallies late, wins LPGA Drive On in playoff that puts Lydia Ko's Hall of Fame bid on hold
Victory, it seemed, was out of the question for the hometown favorite. Nelly Korda stood on the 17th tee Sunday three strokes behind Lydia Ko, with the Kiwi's Hall of Fame procession feeling all but guaranteed. Instead, Korda finished eagle-birdie, playing her way into a playoff and serving as the gatekeeper between Ko and the the LPGA's objective measure of immortality. Korda escaped Bradenton (Fla.) Country Club after parring the second playoff hole to win the LPGA Drive On Championship despite closing with a two-over-par 73.
"I thought that the tournament was over going into 17," Korda said. "I just kind of gave myself a chance. I knew that if I rolled that eagle in I had to birdie the last hole. Yeah, I seem to always make it very dramatic and interesting, so there is no better feeling than to do it in front of a home crowd.
"What a day."
Korda ended a drought with her ninth career LPGA title. The 25-year-old had nine top-10 finishes last season but no victories, discussing throughout 2023 how hard she worked even though she could not find a way to win. That effort continued this week as Korda brought her coach, Jamie Mulligan, out for the first three days. Korda pointed out that she gave herself plenty of opportunities to win at last week's Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions at Lake Nona. Through the first three rounds of the Drive On, that continued, beginning Sunday with a four-stroke lead after missing only five greens through the first 54 holes.
The American didn't keep her lead for long. Close friend Megan Khang, who stayed with Korda at her home this week, caught up on the seventh hole with a three-under-par start. Khang, Korda and Ko scuffled for the early part of the back nine, carding more bogeys than birdies, expressing more frustration than happiness, and displaying more nerves than confidence. Korda missed a four-footer for birdie on the 13th, three-putted for bogey on the 14th, and hit it into the water on the 15th for a crucial double bogey.
Even after the run of mistakes, Korda was still tied with Khang and Ko at nine under par with three holes remaining. Korda's longtime caddie, Jason McDede, pulled her aside and gave a needed pep talk, reminding the No. 4 player in the world that she was still in the tournament.
"I like when he tells me that I need to get my head out of my ass," Korda said.
Just after that talk, Ko seemingly won the championship on the par-5 17th when she hit her second shot with a hybrid to within a foot for a tap-in eagle, a Hall of Fame crowning-worthy shot for sure. A settled Korda repeated her finish to Saturday's round to claw her way back up the leaderboard, draining a needed eagle (from 18 feet) on the 17th and hitting her approach on the 18th so close the roars of the crowd made the Bradenton native believe she holed out the shot.
After the helter-skelter finish where Korda and Ko finished at 11 under par, it was back to the 18th in a high-stakes playoff. Korda looked to win in her hometown for her first LPGA title in 14 months versus Ko a hole away from LPGA greatness. After Ko's approach nestled next to the bouquet of 27 roses that would celebrate her entering the Hall of Fame nod, they traded pars on the first. Ko's three-putt bogey on the second—missing a four-footer for par—gave Korda a four-footer for the win.
Even with the lost opportunity—for now—to enter the Hall of Fame, Ko shared no frustration about how the day ended.
"Obviously I three-putted the second playoff hole, but other than that I don't feel like I lost the tournament," Ko said. "You know, I made a great eagle on 17, great par on 18, and then Nelly just went eagle as well and then birdied the last. So it's kind of like, what can you do?"
Korda, the 2020 Olympic gold medalist, opened her victory press conference by wrapping up a FaceTime call with her sister, Jessica, who is away from the tour while pregnant with her first child, due in February.
"[Jessica] was like ‘I thought you were going to send me into labor,'” Nelly quipped.
After the frantic ending, Korda will now have plenty of time to recover. She will take the next seven weeks off from the LPGA, skipping the tour's Asia swing, so that she can be around for the delivery of her sister’s baby.