JOHNS CREEK, GEORGIA | Brilliance was in abundance Friday at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. On the second nine of the second round, Nelly Korda was unreal. For the second day, Lizette Salas was nearly perfect. And, given a second chance, Celine Boutier painted a masterpiece.
Korda closed a tournament record-tying 63 with six consecutive birdies and seven over the last eight holes in a 29 to be at 11-under-par 133 after 36 holes at Atlanta Athletic Club. That sends her into the weekend one stroke clear of Salas and four better than Boutier, Alena Sharp and Cydney Clanton as all five chase their first major championship.
“I just blacked out out there,” Korda said when asked about her torrid sprint to the finish line on Friday. “Actually, the one on 17, No. 8, was the highlight of my round,” she said about her birdie run.
“I pushed my drive out right, and I was near a root, so I wasn't even sure if I could hit it,” she said. “Thankfully, I hit just the top of it. It's so scary when you have those types of shots. To drain a long putt was nice, too.”
Backing up a great round with another low score is a rare feat – especially in the cauldron of a major championship. But that’s exactly what Salas did, piling a 67 on top of her opening round 67. For the second consecutive day, Salas played bogey-free, hitting all 18 greens as she toured the Highlands Course in complete control.
“I'm definitely satisfied,” Salas said. “We came in with some goals, and we're reaching them. I think overall my attitude has been pretty solid. It's a major; it's supposed to be tough. It's supposed to test you in several different ways, and I think I'm handling it quite well, and back-to-back 67s, I'm not going to complain. I think this is good momentum going into the weekend.”
As anyone who’s played the game knows, golf is a skill rented, not owned. Mastery is a constant battle, a struggle that begins anew each day. That was certainly the case for Boutier, who took to the range after her opening round 73 and responded with a sizzling 64 on Friday that left her at seven-under-par 137.
“I was definitely a bit worried yesterday because I wasn't hitting as well,” Boutier said after she reeled off seven birdies and an eagle. “I went to the range and managed to find something in my swing that helped me today. I hope I can build on some confidence for the weekend.”
Sharp added a 68 to her opening round 69 and Clanton followed a 70 with a 67 to join Boutier at 137. Madelene Sagstrom is at 138 with Charley Hull, Esther Henseleit and three-time Women’s PGA champion Inbee Park at 139.
The performance by Korda was as remarkable as it was riveting. A week after picking up her fifth LPGA Tour victory at the Meijer Classic, the powerful 22-year-old started her day with a bogey – the only mistake she would make – and when she made the turn in 34 it seemed as if she’d be a lurker going into the weekend, not the leader.
And then she found another gear.
She began her second nine par, birdie, par – and then ran the table, making birdies until she ran out of holes as she closed 2-4-3-2-3-3, playing six holes in a mere 17 strokes. The 63 by Korda matches the Women’s PGA record first shot by Patty Sheehan in 1984, then Meg Mallon in 1999, Kelly Shon in 2017 and Sei Young Kim last year.
“Every week is a new week,” Korda said. “Every golf course is a new monster, new golf course. When you win, it's hard. In a sense, you kind of don't even get to enjoy it because I won and then hey, it's a major championship, like get ready. They're two completely different golf courses and two different strategies. It's just good golf that I've been playing, and hopefully I can continue on with that.”
While Korda and Salas have separated themselves from the pack, there are some major champions who could make moving day memorable. In addition to Park, 2016 KPMG champion Danielle Kang is at 140 along with Hyo Joo Kim. Anna Nordqvist, who won the Women’s PGA in 2009, and Patty Tavatanakit are at 141 with a name Nelly Korda knows very well – her sister Jessica, also chasing her first major.
“I think honestly it also helps to have a crowd here,” Korda said about feeding off the fans down the stretch. “I feel like when the crowd is here, they get behind you, they kind of give you a lot of energy, as well. It's nice when you're on top of your game and everything is going well, but you also have the roller coasters.”
Now that roller coaster rides into the weekend. The final threesome on Saturday will be Korda, Salas and Boutier in a showdown to see who can maintain brilliance for yet another day. After all, that’s what major championships are all about.