BELLEAIR, FLORIDA | Every champion has a story, that moment growing up when a parent or a coach ignited the fire that led them to be competitors. Tiger Woods talked endlessly about how his father, Earl, would throw insults and distractions at him, attempting to break him and then build him up again.
Mickey Mantle thought about quitting baseball when he hit a slump. So, his father, Mutt, took him to the textile mill and told him to get a job. The following week, Mantle was back on the bus to play his next game.
Aaron Rodgers was pushed by a coach and his father’s estrangement.
Michael Jordan never got over the slight of being cut from his middle-school basketball team. Dean Smith knew that about Jordan and used it to build the greatest player in history.
And the world of tennis is full of champions who were prodded to be the competitors that they are today.
Petr Korda knew the drill. He saw something in his middle child, Nelly, that he recognized from his own past as a major champion and the No.3 tennis player in the world. Jessica, the oldest had the talent. But Jess was like her mother, Regina, the kind of person who needed to be happy to play well. Nelly was Petr through and through.
When she looks at you, you check your watch to see if it’s stopped running. She is the lion that you never want to anger, the killer who, with just a little nudge, rips you to shreds and moves right along. She has the fire to be as legendary as those other champions. And the way her resume is growing, she is well on her way.
“When I used to play against my dad when I was younger, he would always try to piss me off because he always said that I step it up a notch when I'm pissed,” Korda said after making two birdies on the 18th hole, one in regulation and one in a playoff, to capture the Pelican Women’s Championship presented by Konica Minolta and Raymond James. “And I was fuming from that walk.”
The walk in question was from 17 to 18 on Sunday after Korda seemingly gave the championship away. After playing near flawless golf for 16 holes and coming to the penultimate tee tied for the lead with Lexi Thompson at 19-under par, Korda bombed a tee shot into the perfect spot, leaving herself a wedge into the elevated green at 17. That’s when things went off the rails. She tugged her approach into the worst spot on the Pelican Golf Club, down the steepest hill in Pinellas County, leaving her with what she described as “an impossible shot.”
From there she made a real mess of things. Korda dunked her pitch shot short and into the bunker. Then she blasted out long and ran the 12-footer for bogey a couple of feet past. She then missed that two-footer for double and walked away with a triple-bogey seven. Not only did she lose the lead, she went to 18 in fourth place, two behind Thompson (who three-putted 17 for bogey) and a shot behind Lydia Ko and Sei Young Kim.
That’s when the fire burned its hottest.
“You didn't want to know what I was saying from 18 tee to the 18 iron shot,” Korda said. “Yeah, didn't really want to hear that walkup because I was definitely venting. There were definitely F-bombs flying around here and there. But I think it was good that I got that anger out because I was very angry after 17. I thought I’d lost it there. I was like, ‘Okay, I just gave it to Lexi’ in a sense. But it's a crazy game and I never give up. I will never give up. I'll go down fighting every single time.”
Korda buried a 21-footer for birdie on 18. After Thompson failed to convert a difficult up and down from the left side, there was a four-way playoff with the advantage going to the No.1 player in the world.
The fiery lion didn’t disappoint. She hit a perfect tee shot again on 18 in the playoff, then drilled an approach to within 22-feet on a similar line to the putt she’d just made. Five minutes later, she drained another birdie. Thompson missed and it was over.
Like all champions, Korda found another gear. She fed off her anger and used it as fuel. And like most legends in sports, she was trained that way.
“He would just be a smart ass,” Korda said of her father, the 1998 Australian Open tennis champion. “Because he was good (at golf) and (our matches) were always so close. And I would always pay. We would play for money and he would always try to tick me off. It worked a lot.”
It still does.
“Megan Khang and I played with my dad at Concession (Club in Bradenton) on Sunday before this event, and he was playing really good,” Korda said. “He started to smack talk and I was just like, ‘Okay, get out of here. I don't want to play with you anymore. You get me so fired up.’”
She said it with a smile. She knows. The trophy beside her would not have been hers without Petr. Nelly is her father’s daughter. A lion. And a legend in the making.