No one was hotter than Nelly Korda on, quite literally, a blistering day
Following a day of more scorching temperatures, torrid rounds and a potential game-changing storm on the horizon, the fate of the women’s Olympic golf tournament is as unpredictable as the men’s seven-way bronze medal playoff was on Sunday.
What we do know is that world No. 1 Nelly Korda of the USA totally destroyed the immaculate, susceptible Kasumigaseki Country Club East Course through 17 holes on Thursday and was staring at the magical women’s 59 that only IGF President Annika Sorenstam has recorded in prominent professional competition, that back in 2001. Although Korda ultimately double-bogeyed the final hole, she still finished the day with a record-tying 62, 9-under par, to open a 4-stroke lead at the midway point of the chase for gold. Or so we hope.
The potential wrench is another Pacific storm that could bring torrential rain and wind to the area by Saturday’s scheduled final round, thus ravaging the tournament’s schedule … even to the extreme possibility of cutting to 54 holes.
That said, the intent is to continue as planned and monitor the storm before making a final decision. Meantime, there have been no cooling showers as the heat index reached a week-high of 43C/109F. With more of the same expected on Friday, the field will be starting on both the 1st and 10th tees.
For now, though, it’s all about the 23-year-old Korda, who stands at 67-62—129, 13 under par. Remarkably, she opened with four straight pars before (heat reference) torching the East Course front nine with a birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie stretch to make the turn in 30. Then, after two more pars to start the back nine, she birdied five of the next six holes before coming to the par-4 18th.
The trouble began with a tee shot into the right rough which forced her to punch out to the fairway. But her approach fell just short of the green in a bunker. “I just got a little too cute with that pitch shot,” said Korda, who then blasted out and two-putted for the 6.
Afterward, she said she wasn’t thinking about the possibility of breaking 60, more so that “I was like, oh, cool, I have a pretty good lead going into 18. But unfortunate that double on 18, but that's golf and that's just how it goes sometimes.
“I had a really good stretch of holes,” she continued. “I think I was like 4-under or 5-under through four holes at one point on the back. Or on the front. The heat's getting to me. I just stayed really solid today. On the front I was definitely hitting it better and on the back, I wasn't hitting it as well but making the longer putts.”
It still tied the women’s Olympic record of 62 set by Russian Maria Verchenova at the 2016 Rio Games, and opened the four-stroke lead over three players: Nanna Koerstz Madsen of Denmark (69-64), Aditi Ashok of India (67-66) and Madsen’s teammate, Emily Kristine Pedersen (70-63). Madsen and Ashok were in the day’s first group and Pedersen teed off two groups later. Another stroke back is first-round leader Madelene Sagstrom of Sweden (66-68).
The 26-year-old Madsen shot up the leaderboard first with a six-hole stretch of six under par with four birdies and an eagle-3 on No. 8. “I had a good run on the front nine. Made three birdies and an eagle in a row,” she said. “So I got to 6-under through 8. I was playing pretty good. Then on the back nine I was still playing all right, I just didn't -- I had some good chances I didn't make but I was still happy with the back nine.”
Perhaps the key to Madsen’s round was that she didn’t have to rely on the sour taste of lemon wedges that are tucked in her golf bag. She’s relied on the unusual regime of biting a lemon to check her emotions and notoriously quick temper when she senses things are beginning to unravel internally. But that certainly wasn’t the case on Thursday, when her round was more like refreshing lemonade.
With that early scoring streak, she caught and passed Sagstrom and remained at or near the top for the rest of the day, which she ended with a 4-foot birdie putt on No. 18.
Playing alongside her was Ashok, who at 18 was the youngest golfer at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Now a mature and battle-tested 23-year-old, she continued her outstanding play with a steady, bogey-free round with five birdies, including on the final two holes. The one on No. 18 matched Madsen’s own, though Ashok’s barely carried the water before rolling to six feet.
“The last three holes I had a couple shots that were just a good number for me and I hadn't really had any short approaches all day, maybe just a couple,” Ashok said. “So, yeah it was good to have the same number like two times and hit a couple of good putts as well.”
Regarding her 7-iron approach to No. 18, she said, “I hit it like a hair thin than I wanted to, but yeah, according to the number it should have flown and it did so it's all good.”
Ashok steadily played her own game, which is shorter and has required hitting hybrids into a number of greens. Still, through two days, she has made 10 birdies and just one bogey to close the first round. “I didn’t hit as many as yesterday, but still probably hit five or six hybrids,” she said.
Pedersen’s own outstanding round of 8 under par featured eight birdies, an eagle-2 and two bogeys. “I was wedging it really well today, which gave me a lot of chances for birdie,” she said. “Then I had a really hot putter today and that's kind of what made the score, I feel like.” The eagle, though, came from a 3-wood tee shot to eight feet on the shortened 248-yard 6th hole.
It was the same club that Korda used for her eagle on the same hole, which came on a 25-foot putt. And it proved to be the catalyst to a remarkable day. Though No. 18 cost her the six-stroke lead she had built, she is ready for whatever comes next.
“I’m going to have the mindset that it's going to be a 72-hole tournament and whatever happens, happens,” Korda said.
News, Notes and Quotes
Heat remained a primary area of concern
Due to the continued extreme conditions, with the heat index expected to reach 43C/109F, mitigation measures were implemented, including umbrellas being made available to all players and caddies on the 1st tee, roving carts with ice and cooling towels, and volunteers with umbrellas on each tee.
The heat cost two premier players their caddies, World No. 10 Yuka Saso of the Philippines and World No. 12 American Lexi Thompson. Saso had a new caddie in place by the time she teed off for the first round, but Thompson had to find a replacement for Thursday’s second round after her regular caddie, Jack Fulghum, had to drop out with two holes to go on Wednesday.
She was able to get someone with experience in Drew Hinesley, who was in Tokyo working with NBC. Hinesley had previously caddied on the PGA TOUR for then-amateur Bryson DeChambeau at the 2016 Masters Tournament.
Field’s only two lefties paired together
It’s something you don’t see every day, two lefties playing in same group. But that was the case during the first two rounds of the Olympic women’s golf tournament with the only two lefthanders in the field, Kim Metraux of Switzerland and India’s Diksha Dagar, the last player to get in the field.
On Thursday, Metreaux brought further attention to the unique pairing when she holed her second shot of the day for an eagle-2 at the opening hole. The righty who rounded out the group was Tonje Daffinrud of Norway, who sits 60th at 12-over through 36 holes.
Parental advice at two different Olympics
As an 18-year-old Aditi Ashok took her dad, Ashok Gudlamani, to the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she made history as the youngest player in either the men’s or women’s competition and the only representative from India in the women’s field. It wasn’t a vacation for her dad. He caddied for his daughter en route to a tie for 41st and experience the duo will never forget. Five years later she has her mom, Maheshwari, on the bag in Tokyo.
“Last time, I had my dad on the bag, so that experience was just so incredible,” Ashok said. “I was like, I want to have my mom next time. I made good on that promise.”
It’s working out well for the now 23-year-old, who was asked about the difference between the caddie skills of her mom and her dad.
“I think when my dad's there he knows my game a lot more, probably sometimes more than I know myself, so I always feel compelled to rely on him sometimes,” she said. “Whereas this week I know my mom's there, I can ask her anything, but in terms of like golf advice she may not be able to help me as much as my dad. So I'm just, I guess I'm committing to my decisions more and being more decisive on my own.”
Dynamic Danes in medal contention
The Danish duo of Nanna Koerstz Madsen and Emily Kristine Pedersen shone brightly in Thursday’s second round with Madsen’s 7-under 64 and Pedersen’s 8-under 63 placing the pair in medal contention, tied for second at 9-under, four strokes back of Nelly Korda from the United States.
“Well I had a good run on the front nine,” said Madsen, who made four birdies and an eagle in her first eight holes. “Then on the back nine I was still playing all right, I had some good chances I didn't make but I was still happy with the back nine.”
Two groups later, Pedersen hit a lot of wedges close and rode a hot putter to join her fellow Dane near the top of the leaderboard.
“I think it's a really good showcase of golf for Denmark and for women's golf in Denmark and super happy that we're both up there,” said Pedersen. “I think we're producing a lot of really, really good and talented players, when you think about how small we are and how many are on Tour and winning. So I think Danish golf is growing and I think that's really important.”
Pedersen and Madsen played junior golf together at the same golf club and their families live 500 meters from each other. They grew up together and kind of followed each other all the way.
“We kind of always have been pushing each other, competing and I think that's one of the reasons we're both so good and it's been a good environment to grow up in, having someone to push you a lot,” said Pedersen.
The pair are staying together this week and plan to continue the routine they’ve had off the course, which includes stretching, treatment and eating Chinese food.
Why not Japanese food?
“We have a Chinese restaurant in the hotel,” said Pedersen with a smile.
Olympic ace is highlight for Haddioui
Morocco’s Maha Haddioui, playing in her second Olympic Golf Competition having represented her country in Rio in 2016, made a hole-in-one with a 7-iron at the 163-yard 7th hole, the first ace at the Tokyo Olympics and the fourth in women’s Olympic golf since its return in 2016.
‘Amazing’ was how Haddioui described her first ace in any tournament.
“I'm really excited it happened here,” she said. “I'm always complaining I never got a hole-in-one yet. Always so close. But having it this week, in the Olympics, representing Morocco, I couldn't ask for better.”
Haddioui’s scorecard included the rare cycle of a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 among her 18 holes on Thursday.
All four women’s Olympic aces have come from players representing different countries – Lydia Ko (NZL), Xiyu Lin (CHN), Maria Verchenova (RUS) and Haddioui (MAR).
Aussie Green hot and cold in search for gold (or silver or bronze)
Following an even-par opening-round 71, Australia’s Hannah Green notched eight birdies and two bogeys en route to a second-round 6-under 65 to sit 6-under and seven strokes back of leader America’s Nelly Korda, but just three strokes back from a current medal position.
“I felt like yesterday was just a matter of getting the rust off,” said Green. “Today I gave myself a lot more opportunities for birdie and managed to roll a couple really important putts in and it kind of just gave me some motivation and some confidence with the putter. So I did exactly what I wanted and hopefully I can keep doing that for the next couple rounds.”
With inclement weather forecast for the weekend and a possibility of the women’s competition being reduced from 72 holes to 54 holes, Green was eyeing her position on the leaderboard when she completed her round early in the day.
“I would like two more days to get back up there,” said Green. “I feel like now that I've had a good round I can see what's capable and there's no reason why I can't keep climbing. I really hope that this weather stays away and lets us have a 72-hole tournament.”
Green, a native of Perth where temperatures regularly climb into triple digits (F) during the summer, utilized an ice vest that her team management organized for her to stay cool.
“I pretty much used it every opportunity that I got,” she said. “It wasn't so bad the first nine holes, the last nine was definitely starting to get warm, but today I have to make sure I'm doing the right thing, but I also have to think about the next couple days. So very grateful for the team running around everywhere and looking after me and my caddie.”
Feng celebrates 32 with 64
China’s Shanshan Feng, the bronze medallist in Rio 2016, celebrated her 32nd birthday in style when she fired a flawless 7-under 64 to haul herself back into medal contention on Thursday. After a disappointing 74 on the first day, Feng sank seven birdies against no bogeys to move up to tied 11th place on 4-under 138.
Feng knows she has her work cut out if she hopes to get back on the podium in Tokyo.
“It was pretty good. My ball striking was much better, so I gave myself a lot of birdie chances and I made most of them. So 7-under I think, yes, I'm still behind, but at least I think it's halfway there,” said Feng.