BELMONT, Michigan — When Nelly Korda strolled down the 18th fairway Sunday afternoon with just a one-shot lead, she didn’t let the stress overwhelm her.
She composed herself, finished off the hole for birdie and earned a two-stroke win, finishing with a Meijer LPGA Classic tournament-record 25 under. She hasn’t always been able to do that. Before this week, she said she’d be liable to crumble under the stress a tight tournament can put on her shoulders.
“On Sundays when I’m in the final group, I forget to smile and laugh and I’m so zoned in on hitting these perfect shots and making sure I execute everything perfectly that when something is off just a little bit I get so angry at myself and so hard on myself,” Korda said. “Today I was like, Ok, we take it how it is and just enjoy the moment.”
She needed that happy demeanor on the course too. She entered Sunday’s final round with a three-shot lead over tour rookie Leona Maguire. But that lead vanished and after just four holes, the two were tied at the top of the leaderboard.
Korda struggled on the front nine, going just 1 under while Maguire was 4 under for the day and had no signs of slowing down. But when they made the turn, something clicked in her head. Just stop stressing and have fun.
“Honestly, I didn’t start the day off well. I was not hitting fairways. The holes that I dominated on were the par 5s, I was scrambling for par,” Korda said. “I told myself to stay in it, enjoy the moment, have fun. I talked to my caddie about anything just to kind of keep on going.”
That flick of a switch sparked a dominating run for her. She started the back nine 5 under through her first six holes, which included an eagle on a driveable par 5. But Maguire wasn’t going away easily.
The runner-up wouldn’t let Korda get comfortable at any point in the round. Her largest deficit at any point was three shots, but she turned it into a one-shot gap after a birdie and bogey by Korda pulled her right back into the hunt. While Maguire fell short of claiming her first LPGA win, she said she knows she’s making a name for herself now.
“I’m really starting to feel like I belong out here, even though it’s still my rookie year, I’m feeling more and more comfortable every week,” Maguire said. “My first time in the last group going into the final round, and really proud of how I managed that.”
Korda said that the Ireland native kept her on her toes all afternoon. She was impressed by how she handled the massive situation she was put in for the first time in her career.
That’s emblematic of the whole tour though, according to Korda. She said when she first started as a pro there were just a handful of players in contention every week. But now, she sees the entire field as potential contenders.
“So the rookies out here are playing well. Leona is playing well,” Korda said. “I just think the girls are just starting to dominate. You go into a week back in the day I think you would say, oh, five or ten people could win. Now you look at the field and you’re like, anyone can take home the victory.”
This marked Korda’s second win of the season and her fifth since turning pro back in 2016. This win was a bit more special for the 22-year-old, though, One of her biggest fans, Sophia Howard was in attendance.
Howard, a 14-year-old west Michigan native, was born without a right hand but is an avid fan of Nelly and her sister Jessica. They met earlier this year and played a round together in Florida. But seeing her sink the final shot to earn the title was a special moment for both of them.
Even if Howard had to run to catch a glimpse of it.
“She was at a softball tournament and she texted my sister when I was on at 18, and she said she ran through the third fairway just to get to the green to watch me win,” Korda said. “So that was really cool to see her and for her to be there.”
The moment helped put everything in perspective for Korda. With another major coming up at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in Atlanta, she’s making sure she doesn’t lose that.
But if she isn’t able to reach the top of the mountain again for a while, she won’t overwhelm herself with stress trying to get back in the winner’s circle. She’ll just live in the present and savor every second of it.
“[I] actually really enjoyed today. Honestly, there have been times where on Sundays I really haven’t enjoyed it, the stress kind of ate me and I didn’t stay in the moment and [didn’t] enjoy playing golf on a Sunday in a final group,” Korda said. “But today I really enjoyed it.”