On a day of multiple twists and turns, it was the resiliency of American Nelly Korda that ultimately secured her place in history as an Olympic gold medallist.
The 23-year-old shot a closing two-under par 69 Saturday on Kasumigaseki Country Club’s East Course for a 17-under 267 total and one-stroke victory over silver medallist Mone Inami of Japan and bronze medallist Lydia Ko of New Zealand, who finished second in the 2016 Rio Olympics and is now Olympic women’s golf’s first repeat medallist.
“It feels amazing,” said Korda, who this year has won her first major championship, moved to No.1 in the world and now claimed Olympic gold. “After today Lydia was playing really well, so was Mone, they both played super well, so we were all bunched up there. It was very stressful, but I kept it together, I fought pretty hard.”
Ko and Inami, who tracked and briefly caught Korda with five birdies on the back nine, including four straight, shot 65 before settling their order in a one-hole playoff on No.18.
Inami’s quest for gold in her home country ended with a bogey on the 72nd hole after her hybrid approach shot plugged in the face of the front bunker.
“I lost the opportunity to win the gold because of my failed shot and so forth, but still I'm delighted,” said Inami, who plays on the Japan LPGA Tour. “This Olympic Games was held in Japan and I'm so grateful to win this medal. I'm so happy.”
Ko entered the day with the words of her coach in mind, that “what's meant to be is going to be. So I think that's what I tried to think today. The Olympics is a very special occasion where obviously, yes, we play for our country on a daily basis, but we're really playing for them, this means so much then just for us. So, yeah, it's a huge honour to be able to bring two medals for New Zealand and to be a two-time medallist in the last couple Games.”
Hannah Green was the best of the Australian duo, finishing in a share of fifth after a back nine of 30 on Saturday that could have been ever better.
Aditi Ashok of India, who started the day in second place three strokes behind Korda, gutted her way around the course despite a distinct disadvantage in length before finishing one stroke out of the playoff with a 68. She hung in and gave herself a chance by holing a number of crucial putts.
“I think today I didn't really drive the ball very good and then it's hard to get birdie putts or hit greens when you're not in the fairway,” said the 23-year-old, who impressed throughout the week and received congratulatory messages from both the Prime Minister and President of India. “So, yeah, that was definitely the hardest part to make a score today. … I didn't leave anything out there, I think I gave it my hundred percent, but, yeah, fourth at an Olympics where they give out three medals kind of sucks.”
Ultimately, the day was about Nelly Korda and her perseverance, though it started with an early start due to the threat of weather interference with a tropical storm headed toward the area. As it turned out, the only moisture before the brief rain delay was produced by cooling misting fans strategically placed around the grounds.
Korda’s march to the women’s golf title had been tracking ever since she took the second-round lead Thursday en route to her record-tying 62.
She briefly built her lead to four with a birdie on the second hole before her coronation took an unexpected detour with a double bogey on the 7th hole, the result of two misplayed chip shots. It erased what by then was a two-stroke lead over Ko and Ashok and brought others into the mix, including Emily Kristine Pedersen of Denmark (one back) and Inami (two back), thus issuing a reset for the tournament.
Korda, though, quickly rallied with three straight birdies starting at No.8, displaying a rare sign of emotion with a mild fist-pump as her birdie fell on No.9.
“Yeah, I think I was very frustrated with myself and I was not happy at all, so I told myself there's still a lot of golf to be left and I'm very proud of how I handled the next three holes or even just the entire round after that,” Korda said.
A bogey on No.11 kept things close, then a weather delay hit at 12:26pm after the final group of Korda, Ko and Ashok hit their tee shots on the 17th hole. But that actually might have been a blessing for Korda.
“Obviously I was nervous,” she said, “but during the rain delay I was just with my sister (Jessica), we were relaxing, kind of chit chatting on the ground, in the clubhouse and I think that really helped a lot just to kind of not think about it and just to kind of take a step away in a sense during that rain delay and have some fun.”
Korda then parred the final two holes to secure the victory. She admitted afterward to feeling a different sort of pressure than she’s used to.
“I mean, you're playing for something way bigger than just yourself, you're playing for a gold medal, you're playing for your country and I mean it's an amazing achievement, so obviously that was in the back of my head,” Korda said. “So, it's a different feeling, but I feel like as a golfer or just an athlete you go into every competition or every whatever tournament wanting to win, you have one goal and that's to tee it up and hopefully make the last putt on Sunday. So that's every tournament I feel like is kind of in a sense you stress yourself out the same amount.”
She then added, “I'm going to grow old very fast.”
For now, though, she’s young, mature and an Olympic champion.