Bradenton’s Nelly Korda begins defense of 2021 Pelican Women’s Championship title

She birdies three of her final four holes to rise up the leaderboard late in Friday’s opening round.
Bradenton's Nelly Korda opened the Pelican Women's Championship with a 4-under 66 Friday at Pelican Golf Club in Belleair.
Bradenton's Nelly Korda opened the Pelican Women's Championship with a 4-under 66 Friday at Pelican Golf Club in Belleair. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published Nov. 12, 2022|Updated Nov. 12, 2022

BELLEAIR — For just the second time in her career, Bradenton native Nelly Korda is trying to defend an LPGA Tour title at the course where she won it.

Aside from the LPGA Classic in June, she either didn’t play to defend a title the following year or the tournament was moved.

Korda won the 2021 Pelican Women’s Championship in a four-woman playoff at Pelican Golf Club, and she opened the third edition of the event Friday with 4-under 66, which left her four shots behind leader Maria Fassi after the first round. Korda, starting from the 10th hole, birdied three of her final four holes.

“I was hitting it really good all day,” she said. “I missed just two greens all day, and the only thing I was kind of struggling with was maybe the distance control.”

When Korda found out that tournament play had been canceled Thursday due to Hurricane Nicole, she drove to see her parents in Bradenton, spending the night and next day there, before returning to prepare for event shortened to 54 holes because of the weather.

Korda is ranked fourth in the world. She missed the cut at her last two LPGA Tour events in September. Korda’s last tournament was an Aramco Team Series event in New York last month, a tournament not part of the tour.

It has been “a learning year,” she said, one in which she allowed her body to recover physically from a blood clot diagnosed in March that caused her to step away from golf until June. She didn’t participate in the last two tour tournaments, in South Korea and Japan, saying the “rest definitely was very appreciated.”

After a slow start Friday, Korda started to rediscover her rhythm near the end of the round.

“All you can focus on is yourself out here, what you have right in front of you, and make the most of that,” she said. “And that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to go out and play my game, as everyone is, and see where that can take me.”

Meaningful day for Stephenson

Friday was an important day for Lauren Stephenson, well beyond the 4-under 64 that the 25-year-old shot.

Her younger sister, Hannah, who has been “battling a cancer scare” at 22 years old, finished up her last radiation treatment in Houston on Friday. She also has undergone two surgeries. Stephenson said she went to visit Hannah last week.

Stephenson’s life was “nothing golf-related” the last few months, and it changed her perspective. She missed the cut at her last two events. By that point, she said, “my family life had piled up.” She needed a break, adding it helped her enter this tournament feeling “rejuvenated.”

“Felt really nice to be able to feel blessed to be out here and just kind of have the mindset that golf doesn’t matter,” Stephenson said. “We all have real lives when we go outside of this golf. And just knowing that it’s just a golf tournament and, like, I’m just here to have fun, it just gives me such a different perspective.”

Course excited for ‘The Match’

Less than a month from now, Pelican Golf Club will host “The Match” — a 12-hole event featuring Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas — and owner Dan Doyle Jr. said “it’s going to be a fun night.”

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After finalizing everything, Doyle asked director of golf course and grounds Terry Kennelly whether his staff was excited or nervous about preparing for the Dec. 10 competition. The answer he received: They’re more intrigued than anything, because it’s a one-day event and involves lighting the 12 holes at night.

“There’s more of this mystique like, ‘Wait a second, how are we going to get this done? How is this going to work?’” Doyle said. “They know they’ll have the golf course perfect like it is here for the LPGA, but it’s the lighting element and things that just took it up to a different level where it’s, ‘Wow, we’re going to light this thing up.’”