After Nelly Korda signed her scorecard for a 67 in the second round of the ANA Inspiration, putting her in the lead at 11-under-par 133 through 36 holes, the first question she was asked was a clever inside joke:
“Who’s the best putter in the world?”
A smile burst across Korda’s face with the radiance of dawn in the desert and she answered with the confidence of a champion:
Certainly, nothing that has happened on the treacherous greens of the Championship Course at Mission Hills CC through the first two rounds of the second LPGA major of the year brings into question that assessment.
Korda, her confidence bolstered by the “who’s the greatest” mantra of swing coach Justin Sheehan, has wielded a magic wand.
On Friday, only 27 of her 67 strokes were on the green after needing only 26 putts on Thursday in her opening-round 66. While she rolled in five birdies on Friday, back-to-back par putts maintained her momentum.
Playing the back nine first, Nelly notched a 34 then quickly birdied No. 1. But after missing the fairway with her drive and her lay-up on the par-5 second hole, she needed to roll in a 15-footer for par.
On No. 3 the par save was even longer – she says 25 feet – but those were the only worries as she came home in 33, finishing with the flourish of back-to-back birdies.
That has Nelly two strokes ahead of Mirim Lee as the 22-year-old Korda goes into the weekend seeking her first major championship.
“I was definitely very happy with my putting today, and I was superbly happy with the bogey free,” Korda said. “I wouldn't want to give myself that many long par putts,” she said about the weekend. “I definitely want to be a little bit smarter with what I do out there.”
At 137, four strokes back, are 2014 ANA champion Lexi Thompson and Nanna Koerstz Madsen with two-time major winner In Gee Chun at 138 along with Kelly Tan.
Korda, who won 3½ of her possible 4 points in the Solheim Cup a year ago, has elevated her game since the U.S. loss to Europe at Gleneagles, winning once each on both the LPGA Tour and the LET.
Since the restart, she’s shown steady progress, most recently with a T-3 finish at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship after T-14 at the AIG Women’s Open. She is currently No. 3 in the Rolex Rankings.
In addition to riding that Solheim Cup momentum, Korda has also made a few changes. First, she went to Sheehan as her swing coach. He’s the guy who keeps asking her who’s the best putter in the world as he works to boost her confidence.
And then, at the AIG Women’s Open, she changed her putting grip.
“Honestly, I've always really wanted to go left hand low, but I've never really had the guts to do it pretty much, and the first week I tried it was at British, and I was like, well, this is a great week, it's 40 miles an hour,” she said, talking about the wind. “But it worked out really well, and I've been putting pretty good with left hand low.”
Asked the key to her performance on Friday, Korda sounded like someone who’s taken the words of her coach to heart.
“I think just confidence,” she said. “Everything in golf I feel like is all about confidence and momentum, so just having that confidence and believing in yourself is definitely really important.”
Actually, everything about Korda’s game has been rock solid through two rounds. She’s hit 23 of 28 fairways – crucial given the gnarly rough at Mission Hills this year – and has missed only eight greens.
But it’s that 53 putts through 36 holes that jumps out – that and the fact that her only bogey was on No. 4 on Thursday – 32 holes ago.
“The only fairway I missed was on No. 2, my 11th hole today, and I hit that shot good, too,” Korda said. “I've been hitting it really good off the tee. Even off the fairway, I mean, I'm not missing it by much. Honestly I've just been playing really solid golf.”
Korda, who plays in heat amplified by humidity at home in Florida, has not been bothered by the desert sun that is more intense this time of the year than during the tournament’s usual Spring date. What she will have to deal with now is the intensity of chasing her first major.
“I think just consistent play,” she says is the key to the weekend. Korda, whose best finish in the ANA is T-13 in 2018 and best in a major is T-3 at last year’s KPMG Women’s PGA, says she’s learned how to prepare for major championship pressure.
“Having a game plan going into the week and just trusting it throughout the whole week, not thinking about that it's a major championship,” she says.
And it certainly doesn’t hurt to be able to answer, when asked, who the best putter is: “I am.”