Korda retains lead while Ashok continues to show grit and determination as her closest pursuer
So, the long and short of the women’s Olympic golf competition heading into Saturday’s final round at Kasumigaseki Country Club is this: American Nelly Korda and Aditi Ashok of India.
It’s the difference between the two 23-year-olds, leader Korda at 15-under par 198 and second-place Ashok at 12-under 201, that makes this so fascinating. On paper, they arrived there with similar-looking rounds of 69 and 68, respectively. But when they say looks can be deceiving, it couldn’t be truer than in the comparison between the two heading into Saturday’s final-round chase for Olympic gold … and silver, and bronze.
Next in line are four players at 10-under: 2016 silver medalist Lydia Ko of New Zealand (66), Japan hopeful Mone Inami (68), Hannah Green of Australia (67) and Emily Kristine Pedersen of Denmark (70).
Statistically speaking, it doesn’t seem like a fair fight between the two leaders. While world No. 1 Korda is bombing drives and hitting short irons throughout the East Course, Ashok is dinking drives and relying on hybrids to reach a number of holes, with at least five par-4s typically measuring over 400 yards. Korda is averaging a full 44 yards further than Ashok, who is second-to-last in the field with a 233-yard average.
And yet, she makes it work with a keen understanding of her limitations and strengths. She still hit 17 of 18 greens, four more than Korda in round three. And then there’s her putting, the very thing she practiced endlessly when first introduced to the game.
“She's a really solid putter,” said Korda after they played together. “Like she's a sneaky player. She putts incredibly well. She rolls it really nicely and there's this kind of like confidence she has on the putting green. She has some kind of swag on the putting green and she owns it.”
That said, Ashok said she’s actually about 15 yards shorter than normal at the moment and revealed for the first time that she had COVID in May and June.
“I do think it took a little bit of strength out of me. I was never this short. I was always short but not like 50 behind Nelly and 50 behind Nanna,” Ashok said, referring to Nanna Koerstz Madsen, the third Friday’s final grouping.
Which makes her performance this week even more remarkable.
Entering the day tied for second with the two Danes, Ashok spent most of the day as the primary suitor to Korda’s lead, supported by her mother who is caddying in place of her usual looper, her father.
“She's doing great,” Ashok said. “It's funny, this is the best I've played all year.” Asked if her dad is now out of a job, she said, “No, my dad's good,” she said. “He's enjoying watching me on TV and he enjoys listening to Bones (Jim Mackay) commentate on my game. It's funny because he never gets to see me play on TV, he's always caddying. So that's been cool. My mom has obviously done a great job this week.”
Ashok was caught and briefly passed by Imani, but a bogey by Imani on No. 18 and birdie by Ashok on 17 flipped the leaderboard in Ashok’s favor.
After the disappointment of not medaling in the men’s competition after Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama entered the final round one stroke behind eventual gold medalist Xander Schauffele of the USA, the host country’s main medal hope rests with Inami. “I had a lot of fun today,” she said. “The only thing was on the final hole I misread the putt which caused a bogey. But otherwise, I had a really good day.”
All this was happening ahead of Korda, who never lost her lead, though she didn’t have nearly the day she did on Thursday when she tied the women’s Olympic record of 62 and flirted with a 59 before making double bogey on the final hole.
On Friday, she made three early birdies to open a brief five-stroke lead, but after a bogey-6 on No. 8, she parred the remaining holes.
“It was very upsetting that I bogeyed a par-5, there's something inside of me when I bogey a par-5 that I just get so frustrated about because I shouldn't be doing that,” Korda said. “I kept telling myself that there's more opportunities ahead.”
But they never came. “I didn't have a really good back nine, I was kind of spraying it all over the place, I had some testy par putts, but made all pars and I fought really hard to stay in it really or ahead of it,” she added. “I made some mistakes, but it wasn't really easy out there with the positions I was in.”
Korda was obviously hoping to further distance herself from the field, saying, “I feel like that's kind of the goal going into every round is to play the best I possibly can and maybe get a comfortable lead. But that's the thing about golf, once you get a little too comfortable it humbles you when you start making mistakes and you get ahead of yourself. So, yeah, I would have loved to have had -- I mean obviously no one's ever going to complain about a bigger lead going into a final round, but I'm happy with where I'm at.”
But she still has the lead, and the confidence heading into Saturday’s final round, which gets a nice early start at 6:30 a.m. on the 1st and 10th tees to try to beat the predicted heavy rains from a tropical storm headed toward Japan.
But Korda says she won’t play with an additional sense of more urgency.
“No. My mindset is 72 holes so I'm sticking to that,” she said. “I'm trying to give myself opportunities and make them, that's all. I'm trying to stay as present as possible and see how it goes.”
News, Notes and Quotes
Round of the day
Ecuador’s Daniela Darquea fired a bogey-free 6-under 65 for the low round on Friday.
Think about that for a moment – a 26-year-old from Ecuador, where the capital city of Quito has only eight golf courses, just outplayed 59 of the best women golfers on the planet! That’s the Olympics for you, making moments, inspiring others and building memories.
Darquea began the third round in relative obscurity, teeing off from the 10th tee tied for 46th position. By the end of the day, she sat tied for 25th position at 3-under and seven shots back of the current bronze medal score of 10-under.
Her round included four birdies and an eagle at No. 6 – the second day in a row that she posted an eagle 2 at the drivable par-4 hole.
The LPGA Tour member has experience with medals. She represented Ecuador at the 2015 Pan American Games, the 2016 Espirito Santo Trophy and the 2017 Bolivarian Games, winning silvers in the Individual and Mixed Team competitions at the 2017 Bolivarian Games.
In Ecuador, a country of almost 18 million people, golf is becoming increasingly popular, and Darquea is certainly doing her part to assist that growth.
Silver and bronze medalists from 2016 have worked their way into medal consideration
After playing together the first two rounds, the three returning women’s golf medalists from Rio 2016 were pretty much bunched together, well behind leader Nelly Korda entering Friday’s third round. Gold medalist Inbee Park of Korea was 10 back, bronze medalist Shanshan Feng of China nine back and silver medalist Lydia Ko of New Zealand eight back.
Ko made the biggest move on Friday, shooting a bogey-free 66 with five birdies to finish in a tie for third at 10-under 203, five behind leader Nelly Korda of the USA. Feng was continuing her rally from Thursday’s 64 on her birthday with an eagle-2 and two birdies, but then double-bogeyed the par-4 11th. A final birdie-3 on No. 17 gave her a 68 and 7-under total of 206. Park, meanwhile, couldn’t get untracked, finished 71—210.
Feng and Ko, at least, built some momentum on Thursday with Feng shooting 7-under 64 on her birthday and Ko 67. Park finished with a par 71.
“They moved the tee up again own that par four so it became a short par-4 and I just hit like a little controlled driver and then I hit it to three feet, I believe,” Feng said of the eagle on No. 6. “And that was my actually my first eagle of the year. I made a lot of birdies but that's the first eagle. So I saved it for the best tournament.
“This is the Olympics,” Feng added, “like fourth or fifth it doesn't matter. Like if it's not top 3, it's no difference. And I believe that we have the best girls here in the world so everybody's going to try to go low tomorrow and somebody will. So hopefully that will be me.”
Ko, meanwhile, could only muster one birdie on the front, but then made four on the back.
“I was just so upset at myself,” Ko said of Thursday’s round of 67 which ended with two bogeys, “because normally I feel like my wedges are some of the most like stronger part of my game and I hadn't hit a single wedge within 30 feet all day yesterday. At one point I got to realize it's going too far or too short or something, but I just wasn't getting a sense of it. And I hit such a great drive down the 18th and I only had like 105 to the pin and I was telling people, you have a 30 feet radius with a gap wedge and I missed that 30 feet, I was like so upset. And, yes, I missed like two, 3-footers, but at the same time trying to 2-putt 60-footers, that's me putting myself in that position is where that is the flaw and not the putting itself.
“I think if I keep putting myself in 60-footer range I'm going to stress out the bits that I need to do to clean up,” she continued. “So I was really upset at my wedge game and I was hoping that like with the way I was feeling frustrated I didn't want that to affect the way I went into today. Luckily, I had a pretty smooth start, but then I missed a 3-footer on 2 and I was like, ‘Not again.’ But I think I just stayed patient and there's so much golf ahead of me. So I just tried to play my heart out and I played the back nine really well today, which was the aspect that I kind of struggled over the last couple days. So definitely nice to I know if issue on that. Hopefully good momentum into the 18 holes we get to play tomorrow.”
Brooke Henderson’s sister holding up despite the heat
Brittany Henderson is sister Brooke’s regular caddie, and is holding up well despite the continued hot conditions that already have sidelined a couple caddies and undoubtedly challenged every one of them. But Brooke said she’s holding up well.
“She's been amazing,” said Brooke, a returning Olympian for Canada, said following Friday’s round of par 71. “She hasn't even complained. So, she's been doing really well. I know not all caddies can say that. I'm pretty proud of her for handling it so well and looking after me after I haven't been playing very well either, she's taking care of the both of us.”
Another week, another Irish pairing
Last week in the men’s Olympic competition, Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry played their way into the same third-round group. It happened again in the women’s competition, with Ireland’s Stephanie Meadow and Leona Maguire playing together in Friday’s third round.
McIlroy shot 67 and Lowry 68, with McIlroy playing his way into the seven-way playoff for bronze and Lowry finishing T22. Meadow and Maguire entered the day with a tougher task ahead for medal contention nine strokes behind leader Nelly Korda of the USA.
Meadow gained one stroke on Korda with a 68 and is 7-under for the tournament, which is still well within range of medal contention. Maguire has a bit tougher task after a 70, leaving her at 5-under.
Okay with a medal?
After shooting a 1-under 70 and working her way into a four-way tie for third at 10-under through 54 holes, Denmark’s Emily Kristine Pedersen was asked if she would be okay with sharing a bronze medal if the final round was not played due to inclement weather.
“I mean if I don't get the chance…,” she said before taking a little time to ponder the question. “I would love to play for gold, but if I don't get the chance at least I have some kind of a medal now, but I think we'll play, I hope we'll play.”