RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Jessica Korda is smiling a lot this week.
Her coach, David Whelan, notices that.
It’s a big deal, because major championship weeks used to make Korda so uptight.
“It’s nice to see her laughing and having fun, to see her excited to be playing this week,” Whelan said. “That certainly wasn’t the case in majors in the past.”
Korda wouldn’t recommend having your upper jaw broken in three places, your lower in two and 27 bolts screwed into your skull as a way to spend your offseason.
But, wow, is it working for her.
Korda won her first LPGA start after a painful surgery in December to correct her jaw’s alignment and cure her recurring headaches, and now she is in early position to try to win her first major championship.
With a 5-under-par 67 Thursday, Korda is off to her best start in this event. She was one shot behind Ayako Uehera with the afternoon wave going off.
“I'm really happy with how I handled today, stayed calm,” Korda said. “Always a fun pairing with Lydia (Ko). So I really enjoyed myself.”
With five LPGA titles, Korda has a nice career going, but she hasn’t mustered much success in the majors yet.
In 34 major championship starts, she has two top-10 finishes. She really struggled in majors in 2015 and ’16, missing the cut in seven majors in a row.
What’s going on?
“You want to play so well, you put extra pressure on yourself,” Korda said. “Seeing everything around you, the atmosphere, the people, the interest, and obviously [thinking about] what it would be like to be a major champion, you just get so caught up in that.”
Korda wasn’t caught up in anything but making birdies in the first round. Her game has never looked more complete than it does now.
“It’s only Thursday, guys,” Korda reminded reporters.
But what a Thursday.
At the first hole, Korda hit a wedge to 2 feet and made birdie. She opened with four consecutive birdies.
Korda was firing on all cylinders. She hit a 311-yard drive at the second hole. She hit driver off the deck in the fairway at the ninth hole, blistering the shot 270 yards to the back of the green to set up a two-putt birdie. She hit every fairway but one on the front nine, every green in regulation but one.
While Korda wouldn’t recommend the pain that came with her surgery, she said there has been something transforming about it. The absence of headaches is a daily tonic.
“I'm just a happier person,” she said. “Now, I wake up, no headaches, and it just puts a totally different pressure on you. Now I wake up pain-free every day.”
There’s something else giving her peace of mind.
Whelan, the coach she first went to three seasons ago, completely transformed her short game. He followed her Thursday, loving what he sees, a player confidently attacking because she is no longer afraid of missing greens.
Korda described her game as “really, really bad” before meeting Whelan.
“She had the ability to hit a few shots around the greens, but not the ability to hit the shot that suited the situation,” Whelan said.
Whelan gave Korda a variety of shots, from soft flops to low fliers than skip and spin to quick halts. He taught her how to properly use the bounce of her wedges.
“It’s about having confidence you can hit the shot required,” Whelan said. “That’s what it all boils down to.”
Whelan worked with Nelly, Jessica’s younger sister, who recommended him to Jessica.
“He completely turned my golf game around,” Nelly said.
Whelan first started working with Jessica after she missed the cut at the U.S. Open at Lancaster (Pa.) Country Club three years ago. That’s the year she missed the cut in every major.
In the beginning, all Whelan did was work on Korda’s short game. He started things off with a chipping contest, stepping in and showing her how it’s done. An Englishman, Whelan won on the European Tour, back when Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo were in their primes.
“I think if there’s one thing I did for Jessica, it was make the game a little more fun again,” he said.
Whelan sees that this week, with Korda more relaxed than she has been at majors in the past. After her round, Korda didn’t talk about the work she was going to do on the range. She talked about getting back to her room to play with her dog, Charlie, a goldendoodle.
“She isn’t putting so much pressure on herself,” Whelan said.