By Jeff Babineau
BELMONT, Mich. – Minjee Lee, the third-ranked player in the world, took last week off, still riding the giant wave after seeing her lifelong dream pop to life when she won the U.S. Women’s Open in North Carolina two weeks ago.
Nelly Korda is ranked one spot above Lee, World No. 2, having achieved the No. 1 perch last summer. Here at the Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give in Michigan is where Korda’s incredible run began. She set a tournament record at Meijer, won her first major (KPMG Women’s PGA Championship) the following week, and topped it all off with an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo.
For Lee, now a two-time major champion, and Korda, who spent three-plus months of 2022 on the sideline following surgery that helped her correct a blood clot in her left arm, the time has arrived to get back to work. And that work starts on Thursday at Blythefield Country Club.
Korda, who turns 24 next month, made her return to competition at the U.S. Women’s Open, having not appeared in a tournament since early February. She showed up in North Carolina with very few expectations, but performed quite well after such a long layoff, tying for eighth. Her return arrived later than she had wanted – she stubbornly wanted to return in April at the final Chevron Championship in Palm Springs – but listened to her doctors and rested up.
Meijer always was going to be on Korda’s schedule. She loves the golf course, and shows up every June. Why, as she pulled into the club earlier this week, a new wooden sign awaited: Nelly Korda Drive.
“It’s a very ‘homey’ tournament, and I enjoy being back,” Korda said. “I love this area. I love coming back. I don’t think I’ve missed a year.”
A year ago, she shot 25-under 263, establishing a new tournament mark in relation to par. Her whirlwind summer stretch was challenging to fully enjoy being that she was in the middle of so much good golf in a short stretch. But certainly a year’s time, coupled with three months away from golf, helped her to appreciate what was the strongest stretch of golf in her career.
“It’s hard with golf, because you don’t let it settle in, in a sense,” said Korda, who next week will defend her KPMG title at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. “Like, you don’t take a couple of months off. After the Olympics, runners, if they do well, take a couple months off.
“With golf, we had the British (Open) the next week. … But to have time to look back and even, I looked at a couple of highlights here and there, and it is very special.”
Lee, from Perth, Australia, turned 26 last month, and steadily has been emerging as one of the LPGA’s top stars. She always has been a highly respected ballstriker. Now she owns victories in two of the last four women’s majors, her U.S. Women’s Open title joining her first major triumph at the Amundi Evian Championship in France last summer. Add that to the Cognizant Founders Cup she added just before her U.S. Open, and suddenly Lee has eight LPGA victories. That is one more than Korda.
Lee said she “crashed” for two days following her victory at Pine Needles, then enjoyed some time off around Dallas. She got a reservation at Carbone, a high-end eatery that recently opened in Dallas, which is something not easily accomplished. As for her golf, Lee’s usually solid ballstriking seems to have reached a higher level.
“I’m not really sure,” Lee said this week at Meijer when asked what has elevated her game a notch. “I knew it (her ballstriking) was already good so I think maybe just a little more belief that I could really pull it off every time I played.
“Also, my driving, I’m hitting it a little longer, so I obviously have a little bit shorter clubs into the greens. I’m sure that has really helped as well.”
Lee’s U.S. Women’s Open triumph has resonated to many corners of the world. Her father was watching at home in Perth, and her mother was trying to keep up with the tournament while in Korea, viewing at odd hours of the day. The reaction from family and friends has been universal: “They were just really happy,” Lee said.
But that victory fell two weeks ago, and Lee said she has more aspirations as she tees it up at Meijer. “I haven’t quite reached all my goals yet, so I’m not going to ease off on my training or anything,” she said. “I’m still going to work extra hard.”
Likewise, Korda has allowed herself to appreciate her great run in 2021, but this is a new year, new day. The last time she walked off Blythefield Country Club, she was 25-under par; Thursday afternoon at 12:59 p.m. (along with Sei Young Kim and Brooke Henderson, last week’s winner), Korda starts at level par again. Square One. That’s the nature of the game she plays. The memories are great, sure, but …
“In golf,” Korda said, “you’re constantly moving forward, looking at what’s next. So it’s kind of hard to sit back and reminisce. It’s nice to … but I also like to look at what’s ahead of me.”