PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Jessica Korda made you scratch your head Sunday at the Pure Silk Bahamas LPGA Classic.
She also made you marvel.
How do you win the LPGA season opener two weeks after deciding to overhaul your swing? How do you win when you’re still fighting your old swing, so much so that you shank a wedge sideways and out of bounds late in the third round? How do you win when the coach you sought to help rebuild your swing is so weakened in a cancer fight that you’ve been doing some of your work over the phone?
It speaks volumes that Korda kept fighting to the finish to beat daunting obstacles.
Take the 18th hole Sunday.
Korda, 20, had to birdie it to beat Stacy Lewis and win her second LPGA title. She had to do so getting up and down from one of the most awkward circumstances you’ll see at the end of a tournament. After drilling her approach over the 18th green, just a few feet from the bleachers and amid some electric cables, she decided her nearest relief would create an inconvenient drop. So, instead, she had some officials hold the cables a few feet over her ball while she bumped a putt to the green.
Korda left that bump-and-run 6 feet short of the hole, and then she buried the birdie putt.
When Na Yeon Choi failed to hole out from the fairway behind her, Korda was the winner. She’s a season-opening specialist. Both her LPGA titles were season openers.
“It’s unbelievable,” Korda said after players doused her with Pure Silk shaving cream.
Korda closed fiercely, making birdies at the final two holes to overtake Lewis, the Rolex world No. 3. She birdied three of the last four holes.
She won even when it didn’t make sense she should win.
A couple weeks ago, Korda decided to overhaul her swing with the IMG Academy’s Grant Price (pictured), who is fighting cancer. She took a work in progress to the Bahamas. After taking the lead into Saturday, she started unraveling with old swing habits creeping into her game. She hooked a tee shot at the seventh hole into a hazard. She shanked a wedge at the 13th hole sideways, knocking her ball out of bounds.
Somehow, some way, Korda put herself back together.
“I didn’t let it get to me,” Korda said. “I hooked a bunch of shots in the water this week, hooked a bunch of shots in general. I might have shanked a shot, but I birdied the next hole after that. I definitely wasn’t looking back. I was looking forward.”
Her new coach couldn’t have taught that better.
Price, the nephew to Hall of Famer Nick Price, is on medical leave from the IMG Academy. He was diagnosed with stage 3 testicular cancer last spring. He endured 4½ months of chemotherapy last summer, then major surgery last month, a retroperitoneal lymph dissection that left him with a scar from his sternum to his groin.
Price, 36, isn’t big on looking back, either.
“Grant means so much to me,” Korda said. “He’s so positive, and that’s shown this week. It’s given me a lot of confidence, his positivity.”
Though they were just two weeks into overhauling her swing, Price wouldn’t allow it to be an excuse for a poor start.
“He kept saying, `You are going to be ready this week, you are going to be ready regardless how you are hitting it on the range,’ and I wasn’t hitting it good. I wasn’t really that confident in myself. But just him being on the range with me, ingraining that positivity into my mind, it helped me so much.”
Price and Korda probably met 10 times on the range at the Ritz Carlton course in Bradenton before she left for the Bahamas, but in his weakened condition, Price’s stamina wouldn’t allow long sessions. He sat in a golf cart, and they worked.
“I’m proud of her,” Price told GolfChannel.com in a telephone interview after he watched Korda’s victory from his home. “It was heartwarming to see, and I think it was genuinely therapeutic.”
Korda talked with Price on the phone every day this week. They talked about the shank after Saturday’s round.
“After hitting a shank, there’s a psychological barrier to get over,” Price said. “It’s a testament to Jessica’s mental strength that she bounced back so quickly. Really, this whole swing change, leaving her old coach, it’s a tough decision. Her confidence could have dropped through something like that.”
The week didn’t get off to the best start for Korda, either. Over her first nine holes, she topped a tee shot and hooked another tee shot in a hazard. The new and the old swings were clashing.
“We haven’t had that long to prepare,” Price said. “We’ve probably met about 10 times on the range, but the time I could spend there with my limits was less than I would like.”
Korda knew Price from her days at the IMG Academy. She sought him out carefully.
“First thing I did, I asked him, `Can you help me? And if you can't, it's completely OK. If you don't feel up to it, then it's fine, I don’t mind. But I need to know if you're going to be OK first,’” Korda said. “And that's how every practice started.”
It proved a most unusual winning formula.
“Just heartwarming,” Price said.