If you are looking for a moment of the year – not a shot, or a round, or a particular tournament, but a moment that took your breath away – this could be the one. It happened in the brutal heat of a Tokyo summer about 3:00 in the morning on the East Coast of the United States. But those who witnessed those seconds, either in person or on television, understood the impact of that instant.
It occurred on the 18th green at the Kasumigaseki Golf Club after the conclusion of the second week of Olympic golf. All the shots had been played; all the scorecards were signed; all the congratulatory hugs had been given. The crowd was sparce and the heat remained withering. But the moment was unforgettable.
That was when Nelly Korda, after incessantly fiddling with her hair while accepting the gold medal from IOC member Odette Assembe Engoulou and a bouquet of flowers from International Golf Federation president Annika Sorenstam, turned and faced the flagpoles. As the United States flag was raised to the piped-in notes of the “Star Spangled Banner,” the 23-year-old Rolex Rankings No.1 player in the world clapped her right hand over her heart and cried.
That was it. Those few seconds summed up what the entire two-week experience in Tokyo meant for the men and women who made the trip, managed the COVID restrictions, endured the soring temperatures and played for pride and country. It also encapsulated what the five-year experiment of bringing golf back to the Olympics meant to every person who watched and rooted, whether or not they knew anything about the game.
Getting to that point had been an awful ordeal, not just for Korda, but for all who jumped through hoops to put on the 2020 Games in 2021. The pandemic pushed everything back a year. But rising cases in Asia put a question mark on whether this Olympiad would take place at all. Intense negotiations ensued. Meanwhile, golfers were weighing the risks of yet another health crisis. In 2016 it was Zika, the mosquito-spread virus that caused severe birth defects. Then in 2020 and 2021, it was COVID. Golf had been out of the Olympics for more than a century and the IOC had given the game two cycles to prove it belonged. Circumstances didn’t make the task easy.
Once the first shots were in the air, though, golf became one of the must-watch sports of the Tokyo Games. Xander Schauffele of the U.S. won the men’s competition by a shot over Rory Sabbatini. Then, the women drove viewership up as Korda, along with Lydia Ko, Japan’s Mone Iname and India’s Aditi Ashok, with guest appearances by Madelene Sagstrom, Hannah Green, Nanna Koertz Madsen and Emily Pedersen, brought a new audience to a sport many had never seen.
After a first round of throat-clearing, Korda set the tone on Friday when she came within a whisker of making history. She stood on the tee of the par-4 18th needing a birdie to become only the second woman ever to shoot 59 at this level. The first was Annika Sorenstam back in 2001 when Korda was still in diapers. But Korda and her caddie, Jason McDede, misjudged where the tees were placed on 18 and she hit her drive through the fairway. A sloppy double bogey led to a 62 and the lead.
She never gave it up, although on Sunday, Korda did share it after a lackluster start that included only one birdie and a double bogey in her first seven holes. Then thunderstorms blew through and halted play for an hour, giving Korda time to regroup. She made birdies at eight, nine and 10, a bogey at 11, and then another birdie at 13. The lead was restored. She reeled off one steady par after another to maintain it.
On the final hole, Korda needed a par to win. It was a hole where she had yet to make birdie and where “59 watch” came to a screeching halt with the Friday double. A difficult driving hole with a bunker on the right, trees on the left, and water fronting the green, Korda hit a 3-wood in a perfect spot. From there she hit a short iron safely into the center of the green and rolled her first putt to within two feet.
When she made the short one, Nelly was greeted on the green by her sister Jessica, who was already a sobbing mess.
A playoff ensued to determine silver and bronze. Ko found the bunker on 18 and couldn’t hit the green, so Iname took silver.
A few minutes later, Nelly came out wearing all white, her long, blonde hair obviously giving her fits.
You know the rest. You likely saw it, at least in replay. It was, in the minds of many, the top golf moment of 2021.