Sister-Sister: Kordas, Jutanugarns Rising Up the Ranks Together May 29, 2018 | Shoal Creek, Ala. By Beth Ann Nichols

Nelly (left) and Jessica Korda didn't let a little rain get in their way of having fun during Monday's practice round at Shoal Creek. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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Nelly Korda swung her first golf club, the plastic kind, as a toddler. Her statuesque parents, two world-class tennis players, toted her along to older sister Jessica’s practice sessions. Nelly had her first lesson at age 6 and won the first event she ever played, in the Czech Republic, as a 9-year-old – curiously, taking home a bottle of champagne as a prize. Nelly Korda, now 19, still isn’t old enough to drink champagne, but she is already in her second year on the LPGA Tour alongside Jessica, 25, her idol and best friend. 

The Kordas are one of two sets of sisters in the field for the 73rd U.S. Women’s Open, joining Thailand’s Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn. All four have the game to claim the championship at Shoal Creek. Ariya, the 2016 Ricoh Women’s British Open champ, is a seven-time winner on the LPGA Tour; Jessica has five LPGA titles. Moriya won for the first time in April, and Nelly is due to win any week.

“I don’t think it’s ever not going to be cool,” said Jessica of having a locker next to her sister’s at the Women’s Open.

It’s hard to imagine there are too many families in the world with more athletic talent than the Kordas. Petr Korda and his wife, Regina, have been together for 32 years. They met on the junior tennis circuit at age 9 and turned professional at 18, their career progress slowed because they weren’t allowed to travel freely outside of communist Czechoslovakia until they were ranked higher than 120th. Back then, more than half their earnings went to the government. Jessica, born in Florida, turned pro at age 17 and understood from an early age that she was fortunate.

Petr would win the 1998 Australian Open but he insists that Regina, an Olympian, was the more talented player. At 19, Regina fell in the locker room while stretching and busted her kneecap. Doctors told her she might not walk again, but she eventually climbed into the top 25 in the world more or less on one leg.

While Jessica and Nelly are regularly popping up on LPGA leader boards, younger brother Sebastian, a rising star in tennis, won the boys’ junior title at the Australian Open in January. Sebastian copied his father’s celebratory scissor-kick after the win, as had Jessica when she won the 2012 Australian Women’s Open at Royal Melbourne Golf Club. Still, don’t ask Petr to compare his children to each other, or to their parents. He won’t do it.

“Every child gets DNA from their parents,” said Petr, “but it’s not about talent. It’s how you put it together, what you do with it.”

From the beginning, Petr has preached the merits of balance. Jessica qualified for her first U.S. Women’s Open at age 15 and tied for 19th. But she also spent much of her summer visiting family in the Czech Republic. Petr exposed Jessica to high levels of golf at an early age but kept her tournament schedule light compared to most elite juniors. She was a finalist to Danielle Kang in the 2010 U.S. Women's Amateur and a member of that year’s Curtis Cup Team, partnering with Lexi Thompson en route to victory.

Nelly took it slow, too, taking summers off to hang out by the pool and play soccer. Still, Nelly managed to qualify for her first Women’s Open at age 14, one-upping big sis.

Petr had thought golf too slow but got into the game after listening to Ivan Lendl gush about it in the locker room on the tennis circuit.

“I always felt the sport was when you die, then you can play,” he joked.

Petr never wanted any of his kids to take up tennis. Sebastian started off in hockey. When the girls showed a love for golf, Petr caddied often for them but preferred to stay in the background. When Sebastian made the switch to tennis, Jessica knew he’d have the toughest path of all. To that end, Petr stayed home in Bradenton, Fla., when Sebastian went to Australia on the 20th anniversary of his father’s Grand Slam title. Petr saw the victory from his couch, with the family cat in his lap.

Both Petr and Regina know from experience what their children are feeling on the biggest of stages. They know what to say and when to say it. It’s a gift that’s not lost on Jessica.

“They’re just really proud of us,” she said, “and we’re very fortunate to have parents that aren’t on top of us all the time. That gave us room to grow and make mistakes.”

At one point during the third round of February’s Honda LPGA Thailand, the Kordas and Jutanugarns held the top four spots on the leader board. Of the 10 sets of sisters that have competed on the LPGA Tour, only the Jutanugarns and Annika and Charlotta Sorenstam have each won titles. Charlotta, maybe not coincidentally, was paired with her sister on the day Annika shot the LPGA’s first and only 59.

The Jutanugarns are closer in age than the Kordas and were staples at USGA events together as junior players, taking turns caddieing for each other during match play. The younger and taller Ariya, 22, won the 2011 U.S. Girls’ Junior while Moriya, 23, lost to Kang in the 2011 U.S. Women’s Amateur final three weeks later. The sisters — known as May (Ariya) and Mo — travel together nearly every week with their mother, Apple, who played while pregnant with them both back in Thailand. Mo is the organized perfectionist, down the middle both inside and outside the ropes. May hits it hard on the course but can be found most nights vegging for hours on Thai TV dramas.

Ariya (left) won her eighth LPGA Tour title last week, a month after Moriya (right) won for the first time. (USGA/Chris Keane)

They share the same instructors but process information in completely different ways. Mo wants to know the “why” for everything; May wants just one thing at a time. 

“She forgets things really quick,” said Mo of Ariya. “You know a goldfish? Goldfish have memory for 30 seconds. That’s what she has.”

Ariya, who qualified for her first LPGA event at age 11, showed world-beater talent early on but was sidelined after shoulder surgery in 2013. She lost confidence with the driver after that and missed 10 consecutive cuts in 2015. Her caddie, Les Luark, suggested she put a 2-iron in the bag for tee shots, and playing from the fairway she quickly rose to become LPGA Player of the Year in 2016 on the strength of five victories. 

For a long time, Ariya wasn’t sure if she loved the game or it was simply a way to support those around her. Now she loves the challenge, and after a short stint at No. 1, Ariya might be more prepared for that responsibility the second time around.

Likewise, Petr Korda had always told Jessica that her game might take a little longer to mature. Her strong early-season play might be a case of father knows best. Regardless, it’s remarkable in light of her offseason travails. Jessica’s 2018 debut in Thailand followed the brutal recovery from surgery to correct an overbite that was causing severe headaches and sleep apnea: the surgeon first had to break her nose to get the tubing in place and then her top jaw in three places and her bottom jaw twice.

Jessica now has 27 screws holding her face together. The changes in her bone structure were so profound that some players didn’t recognize her in Thailand. People often tell her she looks more like Nelly now.

Her face was numb for months after the surgery. Jessica spent a lot of time in front of a mirror, practicing how to smile and talk and even eat again.

“It’s going to take a year to get everything back,” she said.

Golf-wise, some things already look better than ever, as her wire-to-wire, four-stroke win over Moriya and Thompson in Thailand showed. For once following in the steps of her little sister instead of the other way around, Jessica signed on with Nelly’s instructor, David Whelan, in 2016. Gone is Jessica’s desire to putt from 40 yards off the green – her short game has been transformed into a strength.

Mostly, of course, it’s big sister looking out for little sister. For Nelly’s 2017 rookie season on the LPGA, Jessica’s idea of taking Nelly under her wing was to let her fly solo. (Maybe we really all do turn into our parents.) She wanted Nelly to establish her own routine, her own friends and her own identity, though at this point the nickname “Little Korda” is probably permanent.

“You are your own person,” said Jessica, “and that’s what’s going to make you a better golfer – because you are you.”

And sisters will always be sisters.

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