On a day of multiple twists and turns, it was the resiliency of American Nelly Korda that ultimately secured her place in history as an Olympic gold medalist.
The 23-year-old shot a closing 2-under par 69 Saturday on Kasumigaseki Country Club’s East Course for a 17-under 267 total and one-stroke victory over silver medalist Mone Inami of Japan and bronze medalist Lydia Ko of New Zealand, who finished second in the 2016 Rio Olympics and is now Olympic women’s golf’s first repeat medalist.
“It feels amazing,” said Korda, who this year has won her first major championship, moved to No. 1 in the world and now claimed Olympic gold. “After today Lydia was playing really well, so was Mone, they both played super well, so we were all bunched up there. It was very stressful, but I kept it together, I fought pretty hard.”
Ko and Inami, who tracked and briefly caught Korda with five birdies on the back nine including four straight, shot 65 before settling their order in a one-hole playoff on No. 18. Inami’s quest for gold in her home country ended with a bogey on the 72nd hole after her hybrid approach shot plugged in the face of the front bunker.
“I lost the opportunity to win the gold because of my failed shot and so forth, but still I’m delighted,” said Inami, who plays on the Japan LPGA Tour. “This Olympic Games was held in Japan and I’m so grateful to win this medal. I’m so happy.”
Ko entered the day with the words of her coach in mind, that “what’s meant to be is going to be. So I think that’s what I tried to think today. The Olympics is a very special occasion where obviously, yes, we play for our country on a daily basis, but we’re really playing for them, this means so much then just for us. So, yeah, it’s a huge honor to be able to bring two medals for New Zealand and to be a two-time medalist in the last couple Games.”
Aditi Ashok of India, who started the day in second place three strokes behind Korda, gutted her way around the course despite a distinct disadvantage in length before finishing one stroke out of the playoff with a 68. She hung in and gave herself a chance by holing a number of crucial putts.
“I think today I didn’t really drive the ball very good and then it’s hard to get birdie putts or hit greens when you’re not in the fairway,” said the 23-year-old, who impressed throughout the week and received congratulatory messages from both the Prime Minister and President of India. “So, yeah, that was definitely the hardest part to make a score today. … I didn’t leave anything out there, I think I gave it my hundred percent, but, yeah, fourth at an Olympics where they give out three medals kind of sucks.”
Ultimately, the day was about Nelly Korda and her perseverance, though it started with an early start due to the threat of weather interference with a tropical storm headed toward the area. As it turned out, the only moisture before the brief rain delay was produced by cooling misting fans strategically placed around the grounds.
Korda’s march to the women’s golf title had been tracking ever since she took the second-round lead Thursday en route to her record-tying 62. She briefly built her lead to four with a birdie on the second hole before her coronation took an unexpected detour with a double-bogey 5 on the 7th hole, the result of two misplayed chip shots. It erased what by then was a two-stroke lead over Ko and Ashok and brought others into the mix, including Emily Kristine Pedersen of Denmark (one back) and Inami (two back), thus issuing a reset for the tournament.
Korda, though, quickly rallied with three straight birdies starting at No. 8, displaying a rare sign of emotion with a mild fist-pump as her birdie fell on No. 9.
“Yeah, I think I was very frustrated with myself and I was not happy at all, so I told myself there’s still a lot of golf to be left and I’m very proud of how I handled the next three holes or even just the entire round after that,” Korda said.
A bogey-5 on No. 11 kept things close, then a weather delay hit at 12:26 p.m. after the final group of Korda, Ko and Ashok hit their tee shots on the 17th hole. But that actually might have been a blessing for Korda.
“Obviously I was nervous,” she said, “but during the rain delay I was just with my sister (Jessica), we were relaxing, kind of chit chatting on the ground, in the clubhouse and I think that really helped a lot just to kind of not think about it and just to kind of take a step away in a sense during that rain delay and have some fun.”
Korda then parred the final two holes to secure the victory. She admitted afterward to feeling a different sort of pressure than she’s used to.
“I mean, you’re playing for something way bigger than just yourself, you’re playing for a gold medal, you’re playing for your country and I mean it’s an amazing achievement, so obviously that was in the back of my head,” Korda said. “So, it’s a different feeling, but I feel like as a golfer or just an athlete you go into every competition or every whatever tournament wanting to win, you have a one goal and that’s to tee it up and hopefully make the last putt on Sunday. So that’s every tournament I feel like is kind of in a sense you stress yourself out the same amount.”
She then added, “I’m going to grow old very fast.”
For now, though, she’s young, mature and an Olympic champion.
News, Notes and Quotes
High praise for Ashok
After her final-round 68 (-3) left her one stroke shy of the playoff for the silver and bronze medals, Aditi Ashok shook off her disappointment and went through the line of multiple media interviews. After satisfying every request, she returned to the clubhouse to start the process of departing Tokyo following a stunning performance that will inspire many in India and around the globe. When she finally got around to checking her phone, she would have seen the following messages.
The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi tweeted: “Well played @aditigolf! You have shown tremendous skill and resolve during #Tokyo2020. A medal was narrowly missed but you’ve gone farther than any Indian and blazed a trail. Best wishes for your future endeavours.”
The President of India, Ram Nath Kovind also tweeted: “Well played, Aditi Ashok! One more daughter of India makes her mark! You have taken Indian golfing to new heights by today’s historic performance. You have played with immense calm and poise. Congratulations for the impressive display of grit and skills”
Jessica Korda finishes strong with a 64, turns attention to younger sister
While all eyes were on little sister Nelly Korda, Jessica Korda had a strong finish in her first Olympic competition, firing a bogey-free round of 7-under-par 64 to finish 9-under and tied for 15th . She had a disappointing start with rounds of 71-67-73.
Asked about the experience, she said, “I wish it wasn’t so hot, I think I got a little maybe heat issue, especially after the first day. But what a great week to have playing the Olympics and I could only dream of this. I wasn’t even dreaming of this, if we had to qualify last year I wouldn’t have been anywhere near it. So, the fact that we had it this year being, having to qualify for the U.S., being the fourth girl, it’s not easy to make our team. So I’m just really proud of myself for grinding it out and playing consistent enough to be able to climb my way on to the team.”
Jessica, who now was going to turn her attention to Nelly’s final stretch run toward the gold, was asked how her observation of her sister might be different from a regular spectator.
“Her and I kind of talked about it that we’re really calm watching each other, we’re definitely more stressed watching our brother,” she said, referring to their young brother Sebastian, a world-class tennis professional. “For some reason we’re just pretty calm with each other and I think it just kind of know how the other one’s playing and it’s golf, so you don’t really know what could happen coming down the stretch, but I feel like we both have so much fate in each other that we’re just really calm.”
So why is it more nerve-wracking to watch her brother? “Because you don’t know what the other person’s going to do and it’s more like head-to-head and so anything kind of goes, I feel like,” Jessica said. “Whereas this is just a little, you know it’s just a little different. You kind of plot your way around a golf course and you’re a little bit more in control whereas I think in tennis it’s more unknown.”
Returning bronze medalist Shanshan Feng has strong finish, noncommittal about retirement
Shanshan Feng of China, who won the bronze medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics, was slow out of the gate with a 3-over-par 74 but came on strong the final three days with rounds of 64-68-67, finishing in 8th place at 11-under par.
“It was great,” she said of her Olympic return. “I have been waiting for so long for this to come. I thought it was going to happen last year during my birthday, but it was just one year later. And I waited and the good thing was I was still good enough to at least qualify for the team. So here I am and, yeah, I’m already, I already finished the whole tournament.
“I didn’t have a great start, but I felt like the last three days I played like a champion, even though I was like really behind after the first round, but I think I really came back and there’s no regret because this is golf, I mean especially in the Olympics, you have the best girls in the world playing. You just have to have four good days to be able to win a medal. So I think the girls on the top they deserve it. And I’m very happy to see actually like some new faces like some players that are not ranked like really high but they’re all up there competing for the medal, I’m very happy to see that because we need some new faces from new countries. I played with Matilda (Castren) and she’s from Finland, I think she’s an upcoming star. She’s already won a tournament this year and she was great. But other than that, I hope that I can see more Chinese faces getting on the Tour and get on the top of the leaderboard and win tournaments.”
Regarding ongoing speculation of her retirement at age 32, Feng said, “I don’t know. I wouldn’t say I’m retired yet. I would like to play some more on the LPGA, just to give it like a conclusion or what do you call it?”
Send off? Finale? Swan song?
“Okay, something like that,” she said. “But I just don’t feel like I want to do three times quarantine in this second half of the year … So I think that might be a little too much, so I’m going to wait to see how the schedule is like in Asia next year maybe, so hopefully I’ll come back.”
Yuka Saso gets untracked in the final round
U.S. Women’s Open champion Yuka Saso of the Philippines had a strong finish with a 6-under 29 on the back nine with four birdies, including three straight, and an eagle-2 on the short 17th hole, where she hit a 3-wood to 10 feet. That gave her a 6-under-par 65 for the day to finish at 10-under 274.
“I putted really good,” Saso said. “I finished that way. Yeah, it feels good. The first birdie (on the back) came, it was really long putt. I didn’t really expect it to go in but it did. Next hole I hit it close and it was a downhill putt, I putted really good. The par-5 I reached it in two, that was really good, a 3-wood. Then on the last hole as well. I really hit a good second shot and made the putt. Now it’s a finish like that, it felt really good to end that way. I hoped I would play that well the first three days.”
Another 29 recorded by Kelly Tan on the back nine
While the drama was unfolding atop the leadership early in the day, Kelly Tan of Malaysia, was quietly putting together her own 29 on the back nine – where she started her round – with six birdies, including five on the last six holes. She cooled off on her final nine, but still finished at 7-under 64. It was a satisfying finish after entering the day five over par with rounds of 73-73-72.
“Yeah, honestly I felt the same every day, I felt that I could do that, it’s just that today the score reflected it and it’s really great to see,” Tan said. “Deep down I felt that I was playing really well, just that the first two days it didn’t show on my card but, yeah, it felt great to be able to just pull it off like that.
“To be able to shoot 7-under at the Olympics on the final round I think that’s something that I’ll never forget,” she added. “Shooting 29 on the back nine, that’s something I haven’t done in my career, so that’s a positive for me as well. Yeah, I know I didn’t get a medal, but I know that I fought hard and I played hard for my country and I’m really proud of the way I did and I bettered my position from the last Olympics and that’s all that matters, so it’s great to see those improvements.”
Green closes in 30 after early struggle
Hannah Green began the day in the penultimate group, five strokes back of Nelly Korda’s lead with the goal of winning a gold medal, but that possibility quickly faded after a 2-over 38 on the front nine. However, the Aussie never gave up, notching four birdies and an eagle at the par-5 14th before the horn sounded suspending play while she was on 17 green. Forty-nine minutes later, she returned to make par before dropping a shot at the 72nd hole, eventually finishing tied for fifth, three strokes out of the playoff for bronze.
“I think to be even in contention come the last couple holes…really proud of myself for how I hung in there and didn’t get too down on myself and tried to think of the bigger picture I guess and being so lucky that we even have an Olympics to compete in,” said a reflective Green.
“I felt like with nine holes to go that I was nowhere near it so when I made the putt on 10 I think it was really important for my confidence,” said Green. “I think the eagle putt on 14 really was when like oh, okay, maybe I am in contention. So super happy to have birdied 15 and 16, but I felt like I made almost a bogey on 17 not birdieing that hole.”
Green had such good momentum and admitted the delay hurt her chances of a medal, but she was happy officials were able to allow the players to complete 72 holes.
“It was hard to pump myself back up again,” she said about returning after the weather delay. “I felt like I was on Cloud 9 for those five holes so, yeah, it was definitely hard to go back and rest and then come back out again.”
Green has been bitten by the Olympic bug and will be striving to make it to Paris in 2024.
“I didn’t really think too much of it but I guess it is only a few years away, so hopefully I can keep continuing to play well,” she said.
Tavatanakit saves best for last
Following rounds of 71-71-69 Thailand’s Patty Tavatanakit saved her best for last with a final-round 68, eventually finishing in a tie for 23rd at 5-under par. She did it with a PGA TOUR winner, who is also her instructor, on the bag.
Grant Waite won the Kemper Open in 1993. He also famously finished second to Tiger Woods at the 2000 Canadian Open when Woods hit a spectacular fairway bunker shot over water onto the green on the 72nd hole to secure the win.
“Grant has been a huge part of my success so far this year just because he put my game in a good place and mentality too in the sense that I look at the course differently,” said Tavatanakit. “I approach things differently on the course, just the way I look at things or just in a better perspective.”
Tavatanakit has worked with Waite for a year now and feels like she still has a lot of work to improve.
“My game is trending upwards,” she said.