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Nelly Korda faces her toughest test at U.S. Women's Open

Orlando Ramirez / Getty Images Sport / Getty

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — No matter how easy Nelly Korda has made golf look over the last two months, not even the best player in her sport can expect an easy time at the U.S. Women's Open.

The biggest and richest event in women's golf prides itself on being the toughest test, and Lancaster Country Club has all the trappings with its hilly, tree-lined terrain, partially blind shots into some of the greens and a routing in which holes constantly change direction.

“A beast,” Korda called it.

Whether the toughest test identifies the best player is up for debate.

Since the women's world ranking began in 2006, only two players at No. 1 captured the U.S. Women's Open — Annika Sorenstam in 2006 at Newport (an 18-hole playoff win over Pat Hurst) and Inbee Park in 2013 at Sebonack Golf Club on Long Island, the year Park won three straight majors.

Now it's Korda's turn, and she arrived at Lancaster on a stretch of winning not seen since Lorena Ochoa in 2008, the last person to have six victories before the calendar turned to June.

“It just tests every aspect of your game,” Korda said. "It's tight off the tee. Visually it looks so much shorter than it is. There's bunkers that visually you see that you think you're going to carry that you end up maybe 10 yards short.

“If you're in the rough and you miss fairways, the greens are very small and very slopy, and the rough is thick around the greens, too."

The 79th edition of the Women's Open gets started on Thursday, and Korda is as big an attraction as the course itself, which previously hosted the Open in 2015.

Korda tied an LPGA record by winning five straight tournaments, a streak capped off at the Chevron Championship in the first major of the season. She is coming off a win in her most recent tournament — that makes six wins in seven starts — at the Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National in New Jersey.

“Right now I think Nelly is just in a league of her own,” said Allisen Corpuz, the defending champion who picked up her first major — and first LPGA title — last year at Pebble Beach.

There has been plenty of buzz around Lancaster beyond Korda. The purse is $12 million, and the USGA decided to follow the model of the PGA Tour's elevated events by paying 20% of the purse to the winner — $2.4 million.

This also figures to be the last U.S. Women's Open for Lexi Thompson, who is playing it for the 18th time and she still is only 29. Thompson said she is retiring from a full schedule after this year. Barring a high finish, she won't be eligible next year and is unlikely to get a special exemption because she has never won.

Among those who could challenge is Rose Zhang, the decorated amateur at Stanford who won in her LPGA debut as a professional last year, and then ended Korda's winning streak with a victory at the Cognizant Founders Cup.

Zhang just turned 21 and has not even spent a full year as a pro. She still can appreciate what Korda is doing, and how tough the 25-year-old American will be to beat.

“I'm witnessing some crazy history, and it's really, really inspiring to see her,” Zhang said. “She's almost looking unfazed. ... Even though she's not acting like a human being right now — or playing like it — I think she has a lot of pressure on her. And that's why I'm saying she's so incredible, because she's able to handle all that pressure.”

Korda has two majors among her 14 titles on the LPGA, the other coming in 2021 at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship that first elevated her to No. 1 in the world.

In the two years that followed, there was a revolving door at No. 1 among five players. Korda had a health scare with blood clot in 2022. She now is back to full strength and dominating.

“Nelly is almost what we are trying to aim for, because if you beat her you're probably going to have the trophy in your hands,” said Hannah Green, the only other multiple winner on the LPGA Tour this year.

But the Women's Open can have a mind of its own, and there have been plenty of surprises over the years, from Corpuz at Pebble Beach last year to A-lim Kim at Champions in Houston during the COVID-19 pandemic in December 2020, even back to Hilary Lunke in 2003.

Korda has only two top 10s in the Women's Open — a tie for 10th at Shoal Creek in 2018 and a tie for eighth at Pine Needles in 2022. Both times, she finished 11 shots out of the lead.

The U.S. Women's Open doesn't discriminate. It's tough for everyone.

“It's important not to get ahead of yourself and just think, ‘Oh, I have to beat Nelly.’ You've got a lot more people out here who are really just as driven,” Zhang said. “Because to get to the U.S. Open, it doesn't just take a lucky chance. It requires a lot of years of playing and being able to practice for this moment. I mean, Lancaster is a difficult place.”


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