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The Unknowable Nelly Korda - Australian Golf Digest The Unknowable Nelly Korda - Australian Golf Digest

What does the superstar owe her sport? 

“Your job as a top player is to help build this tour.”  – Stacy Lewis, to Golfweek, in 2022

Christina Kim does not accept the premise. The 22-year LPGA veteran is a Nelly Korda supporter, fullstop, even as she jokes that she has been on tour almost as long as Korda has been alive. The concept that Korda should be doing more than simply tearing up the circuit at an historic rate – she won six of her seven LPGA Tour starts up until the start of June – strikes Kim as absurd.

“I’ve always been a fan of people being true to who they are,” Kim said. “And Nelly Korda is, in a word, chill. What’s wrong with someone finding joy and happiness in what they do, and having that sense of wholeness in who they are?”

As to the concept that she’s leaving exposure on the table, Kim baulks.

“If anything, she’s the perfect ambassador for our game,” she said. “She has integrity, she will absolutely murder you on the golf course, and there’s no gamesmanship, no snark. She has a good and kind soul.”

This rousing endorsement of Korda can be seen as Exhibit A for the defence. Pitted against that perspective is the quiet but growing concern in certain corners of women’s golf that Korda does bear a deeper responsibility for promoting her sport, and that by resisting a bigger stage – turning down media opportunities both small and large, and maintaining a wary distance in those she accepts – she has failed to capitalise on an unprecedented moment. And Kim’s perspective as a colleague is different from what you might hear from those in marketing or the media. What she sees as “chill”, others see as insularity or detachment. Both arguments have their compelling points, and definite answers are hard to come by.

Team Korda opted not to participate in this story, which is fair enough; she’s not the first high-profile athlete to turn down an interview at an important juncture of the season. What’s remarkable about the Korda team writ large, though, is how effectively they’ve built a wall around themselves, how tough it is to penetrate that wall even for journalists who have worked the LPGA beat for years and how their emphasis on privacy clashes with her emergence in 2024 as a superstar in a sport that greatly craves exposure.

She is the greatest player in today’s game by far, and she may be on a journey to becoming one of the greatest ever. Yet in a social-media age, at a boom time for women’s athletics, the 25-year-old has defied the odds and remained a cipher even within professional golf. Korda’s hope is that on-course success is enough.

“I’m just out here doing what I love and hopefully that’s what grows the game naturally,” she said in May. “I’m not trying to push anything. I hope that people see me for who I am and that I love this game.”

But what if, as some contend, that’s not enough? What if women’s golf needs not just dominant victories, but a dynamic superstar, its own version of Tiger Woods? There are inevitable comparisons made to Caitlin Clark – Google the phrase “Caitlin Clark moment” with “Nelly Korda” to experience the deluge – but Clark carries herself with an engaging swagger that seems to perfectly align with the surge of women’s sports. That’s not Korda, and whispers that it should be, that she should flick a personality switch for the betterment of the women’s game, sound optimistic to the point of delusion. To many like Kim, it also feels unfair.

Still, it’s easy to understand the quandary for those who cover and promote women’s golf. They have in their presence a young American star of unlimited talent – a dream on paper – but one who keeps the outside world at arm’s length.

“I would say that in terms of media, she doesn’t want to do it,” one LPGA reporter said. “But more importantly, she doesn’t understand the Spider-Man line, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’”

What do you do with a star like this?

Nelly Korda poses with her mother Regina, sister Jessica and father Petr after her victory at the 2021 Gainbridge LPGA tournament.
Getty images: Julio Aguilar

A FAMILY AFFAIR
There is a notable dearth of in-depth features about Nelly Korda for someone so accomplished, much less someone from such an exceptional athletic family. Her father Petr was an Australian Open tennis champion, her mother Regina reached the top 30 in women’s tennis, her older sister Jessica is a six-time LPGA winner, and her younger brother Sebastian is currently the 28th-ranked men’s tennis player in the world. The name “Korda” should resound far more than it does in our celebrity-obsessed culture, and their relative obscurity is tribute to a clannish kind of vigilance – justified, some would argue – when it comes to outsiders.

Korda is not a complete media hermit; she is less available than your average superstar and strictly businesslike with print media, but we can still watch her appearances from a distance and try to read between the lines. In less formal videos with outlets like Barstool, she comes off as likeable, with a sneaky sense of humour and an engaging laugh that’s part nervous, part exuberant. She also reads as fundamentally shy; she’s been in the public eye long enough that she doesn’t seem uncomfortable with small talk and joking, but there’s enough reticence to make clear that it’s not her natural inclination. (One person who worked with her on an off-course project said it was clear that she didn’t love the spotlight, but that she had a surprising magnetism and was a “nice, low key” person who was the same off-camera as on.)

There’s even something endearingly nerdy about Nelly. In an Australian Golf Digest interview with her sister as part of a cover package with the two of them for our February 2021 issue, when asked about her hobbies, Nelly admitted to taking binoculars out onto the balcony at her home in Bradenton, Florida, and watching the people who passed.

“You’re one of those,” her sister joked, but the heavy-handed metaphor is nonetheless true: the younger Korda prefers to be the one observing, not the one being observed.

“I travel like a hobo, hood up, so I don’t get recognised,” Nelly told Golf.com, and though she clarified that she enjoys when younger fans approach, it emphasised her discomfort with off-course attention.

But this depiction of a reluctant genius might obscure her true nature as much as it reveals it, because although she’s an introvert, she’s a rare introvert who burns with competitive desire. In that same interview, when the sisters were asked to name each other’s best qualities, Nelly cited Jessica’s kindness, but tellingly, Jessica pointed to Nelly’s ambition and drive. Even in the lighthearted videos you can find on YouTube, Nelly’s affect transforms when she stands over the ball, and something more serious takes over. She even likes to sledge a little. And her most revelatory quotes come in describing how she craves the intensity of the big moment, how afterwards she feels literally sick from the extremes of emotion and adrenaline, but how she loves it anyway.

From the outside, the Korda children seemed groomed to be athletes. Petr and Regina were tennis stars from the Czech Republic, and the family didn’t live full-time in the US until 2008. “We were put in a bunch of sports from a young age,” Jessica told Golf Digest, and by the time Nelly was 6 and “got serious” about golf, she was taking lessons three or four times a week. By 16, she petitioned to play on the Symetra Tour, and she turned professional in 2016 rather than attend college (Jessica passed on college and turned pro in 2010 at age 17). Nelly’s career progressed at a rapid pace, winning eight LPGA titles and an Olympic gold medal through the 2023 season, and in 2024 her talent and drive have fully clicked into place. Six wins in five months bring her total LPGA tally to 14, and the Chevron Championship in April marked her second career major.

With that success comes a brighter spotlight, and with the brighter spotlight comes the stark contrast between her achievements and her remoteness. The most intriguing questions are sometimes the toughest to ask. Is it more than just shyness that dictates her relationship with the media? Is there an element of mistrust? And to what extent does any of this mistrust come from the great controversy of her father Petr’s career, when shortly after his crowning athletic achievement – winning the 1998 Australian Open – he tested positive for the steroid nandrolone at Wimbledon? He was suspended for a year after a complicated process and chose to retire (Petr has always maintained that he doesn’t know how the drug got in his system). It was a controversial moment in tennis and would seem to be an important piece of history for a family of professional athletes, but there is no known record of the Korda children having been asked about it. And though it happened 25 years ago, it feels relevant today because of the unusual control the Korda patriarch has exerted over his children and their careers.

Nelly Korda’s attendance at the Met Gala in May surprised many given her usual lack of proclivity for such public appearances. Getty images: Taylor Hill, Sarah Stier 

Patricio Apey managed Petr Korda in his prime, and he also advises all three Korda children, which gives at least a hint of the influence the father maintains. In 2021, Apey spoke with Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times about the rise of the three Kordas, and compared Petr to Richard Williams.

“As crazy as it sounds, Petr and I have been talking about this for like 12 years, to do these things together with the three kids,” he said. “I always say he’s half-genius and half-crazy, and it’s hard to differentiate between the two.”

Writing of the “short-term sacrifices” this sometimes entailed, Rothenberg noted that Seb Korda skipped the Tokyo Olympics where his sisters were competing to prepare for the US Open. (Korda retired in the second set of his first-round match in the US Open with a stomach illness.)

“My dad still actually does my schedule to this day,” Nelly Korda said after her latest win at the Mizuho Americas Open. “He’s very, very involved with the scheduling of my entire year and how much time I have off and what I’m doing off the golf course.”

Considering that type of control, is it a stretch to wonder if Petr’s experiences with the media (particularly if he felt he was unfairly treated at the time of his suspension) might trickle down to his children? To make matters worse, the younger Kordas have not been immune from a whiff of scandal. In 2019, Jessica Korda’s boyfriend (now husband) Johnny DelPrete was arrested in the massage parlour prostitution sting that also implicated Robert Kraft. The Florida state attorney’s office dropped all charges in 2020 after an unfavourable ruling in a Florida appeals court regarding video evidence, but multiple sources speculated that the coverage in the meantime further eroded the family’s trust in the press.

Sources also noted that the Kordas have a distant relationship with some members of golf media, based partly on a difference of opinion regarding what the purpose of media in women’s golf should be – to cover or to promote. This is not a problem unique to the Korda family. There are frustrations among print and television journalists covering the women’s game with the gulf between the stated desire to treat it like any other sport and the pushback they receive even at the slightest hint of negativity. This came to a head last year at the Solheim Cup, after Lexi Thompson shanked a crucial chip in a Friday match. When she was asked a simple question about the shot in the press conference, she refused to answer, and US captain Stacy Lewis called the question “terrible”.

“So sad seeing golf media, yet again, shred Lexi,” Jessica Korda tweeted, and many saw this as another example of how some figures in women’s golf purport to want equal treatment but react defensively when that treatment becomes even vaguely critical.

Getty images: Taylor Hill, Sarah Stier 

Jessica Korda’s tweet shines a light on the general Korda attitude towards golf media, but many conflicts have taken the less dramatic form of simple abstention. Issues arose in the past with Nelly opting out of pre-tournament press conferences, and at the 2021 AIG Women’s Open, her first appearance after winning the gold medal and just two months after her first major victory, her absence was so glaring that a British journalist brought it up with R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers at his own ‘presser’.

“This is a massive week to promote women’s golf. Is it disappointing that the world No.1… is not giving a press conference this week?” the journalist asked.

Slumbers responded that Korda would be doing interviews after her rounds and it was most important that she felt rested, but the problem persisted for some time before a tentative truce was reached.

Again, Korda is not alone among her fellow LPGA players when it comes to a perceived lack of engagement. In 2022, Terry Duffy, the chief executive of the CME Group, a title sponsor of the LPGA Tour, went public with remarks to Golfweek that he was “embarrassed” and “exceptionally disappointed” when no players showed up to a year-end dinner at the Tour Championship, Korda included.

“As a top American, as No.1 in the world, you’re going to be asked to do a lot of things,” Stacy Lewis told Beth Ann Nichols of Golfweek. “You’re going to be asked to do a lot of interviews that you don’t want to do. You need to do it because it’s what’s best for the tour. It will be productive for you; it will be productive for the tour. It creates more exposure, and that’s your job. Your job as a top player is to help build this tour… the current generation needs to hear it, needs to be taught it.”

But while Korda is far from the only offender, her status and success have made some of her recent choices look questionable. She criticised TV coverage at the Chevron Championship – “I feel like we just need a stage. We need to be put on TV. I feel like when it’s tape delay or anything like that, that hurts our game” – but multiple sources also confirm that in the wake of her victory, she had an offer to appear on the “Today” show in New York and had other discussions about a guest spot on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” She appeared on neither.

Getty images: Mike Ehrmann 

A RECURRING PROBLEM 
One LPGA reporter referencing these incidents painted a sharp contrast between Korda’s claim that playing well would create its own promotional opportunities and the subsequent refusal to seize those opportunities. Another media figure pointed out that LPGA players don’t get a lot of chances at exposure on the national level, and to pass up the rare times when it comes around costs the sport a potentially significant chunk of new viewers.

Others interviewed expressed sympathy for Korda, arguing that it’s unfair to ask her to become Caitlin Clark, or even a charismatic figure in the women’s game like Nancy Lopez. (“She’s not Caitlin Clark, and she’s never going to be,” one said.) There’s a heightened expectation that rises to a double standard, one writer told me – Korda now reliably does press conferences at tournaments, she appears on TV after rounds, she dips her toe into independent media and tries to grow the game in smaller ways like working with junior golfers. If she were a man, she might not be expected to do anything more, but the underdog status of women’s golf creates expectations for its stars that might be viable for someone like Michelle Wie West, but can be crushing for an introvert.

“You’re on a razor’s edge,” LPGA veteran Kim agreed, “trying to balance what’s best for yourself against what’s good for the greater game of golf. There’s a bit of a double standard.”

“In some ways,” one journalist said, “this is where we’ve always been with the LPGA. We get one of these potentially transcendent stars, and we want to squeeze the ever-loving blood out of the turnip, because we don’t know when we’ll get it again.”

Still, to stiff-arm even giant national outlets makes her unique. Plenty of players prioritise TV over print media due to the opportunity for broader exposure, but Korda has even shut down the biggest names. It’s her prerogative, of course, but it’s easy to understand the frustration this creates within a sport that is thirsty for exposure.

My first interaction with either Korda sister came at the 2021 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, when Jessica Korda seemed annoyed at what I thought was an innocuous, even positive, question about her clinching a spot on the US Olympic team. More than a year later, at the LPGA CME Group Tour Championship in 2022, Nelly Korda’s coach Jamie Mulligan gave an interview to Golfweek in which he went in-depth on Nelly’s blood-clot scare earlier that year, and how harrowing the first day had been (she was eventually sidelined almost three months after surgery). At the pre-tournament press conference, Nelly Korda was clearly displeased.

“I was not very happy with that article,” she said. “I’m very private about my medical history, my medical issues.”

Getty images: Gregory Shamus

When I asked if she was upset that Mulligan had given those details, she didn’t quite throw him under the bus, but she did emphasise the value she put on privacy, and that she had “nothing to say” about her coach. Mulligan still works with Korda, but the message was loud and clear.

In both cases, it was tempting to wonder why the reactions were so severe. Why get upset about a question on making the Olympics? Why be so secretive about a medical detail that emphasises your strength and resilience, and would seemingly garner sympathy from the public? Why the almost compulsive retreat to privacy? It’s easy to ask these questions when you don’t share their experience of intense media exposure, but it still feels as though the suspicion is so deeply ingrained that they end up fighting unnecessary battles.

This insularity, and whatever mistrust the family holds for the press, all play a part in keeping a star like Nelly Korda behind a veil. There have been recent attempts to seek exposure in alternative ways, like videos and podcasts and her surprising appearance at the Met Gala, and she’s proven adept at navigating these situations despite her inherent shyness. It may be impossible to know her, but when she allows herself to be seen just a little, people tend to like her.

As to the larger issue of what Korda owes her sport – a discussion which will inevitably be re-lit throughout the northern summer – we’re at an impasse, if not an outright stalemate. Is it her job to broaden her appeal? Is the LPGA’s job to market her more effectively? Is it ridiculous to compare a niche sport like golf with the surge of interest in women’s basketball? And to what extent does the walled-off Korda family make all this a moot discussion?

For now, what anyone wants from Nelly Korda is beside the point; she will give what she’s comfortable giving, and in the meantime, she’ll thrive in the space of zero ambiguity – the golf course itself, where the shyness and the suspicion give way to the spectacle of a great champion. In that arena, complications vanish, and there is no one in the world whose expectations exceed her own. 

Feature image:  Getty images – Dustin Satloff