Nelly Korda will have to come from behind to three-peat at The Annika

BELLEAIR — As Nelly Korda knocked in her putt for birdie on the 18th hole Thursday at Pelican Golf Club, the gallery erupted in cheers. It’s hard not to notice the local favorite to win The Annika, this weekend’s rebranded LPGA Tour stop.

“It’s kind of my home crowd,” said Korda, a Bradenton resident and the tournament’s two-time defending champion. “So, it’s nice. My sister (LPGA player Jessica is) here with me this week. And then my parents are here, and then actually my boyfriend’s mom came and surprised me after nine holes because my boyfriend (Chicago Blackhawks center Andreas Athanasiou) is playing (Thursday in Tampa) against the Lightning.”

Korda, 25, might need every advantage she can get.

She finished the first round at 3-under 67, five back of leader Brooke Henderson. Henderson won the tour’s season opener and hasn’t won since.

Henderson had a one-shot lead over a group of four that included Jin Young Ko, No. 4 in the world rankings.

Lexi Thompson, who finished runnerup to Korda last year and lost to her in a playoff in 2021, was in a group at 6 under. She is playing for the first time since missing the cut by three shots in the Shriners Children’s Open at Las Vegas on the PGA Tour.

World No. 1 Ruoning Yin was in a group at 2 under.

This is the last tournament for the top 60 players to reach the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Round 1 was suspended due to darkness at 5:48 p.m. The round was to resume with players in position at 7:45 a.m. today.

Korda hopes she found something on the back nine.

“It was a little rough, but I kind of got it going on the back nine, which was nice,” she said. “I saw some birds drop. Overall, you know, I played OK.”

Korda entered the tournament without a tour win this season. She was in the same situation a year ago, when she finished a stroke ahead of Thompson after a blood clot had kept her off the course for months.

Two years ago, Korda won a playoff over Thompson, Lydia Ko and 2020 champion Sei Young Kim.

Korda has strong memories from both tournaments.

“I think, obviously, ‘22, just overcoming what I overcame that year,” Korda said. “And then ‘21, coming off a great year, too. It’s always nice when family and friends are out here supporting me, and being so close to home and just feeling really good at a tournament.”

With the attention generated by the former Pelican Women’s Championship being renamed in honor of Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam, there is added interest in Korda’s attempt to three-peat.

Since 2001, there have been only four three-peats on the tour. Sorenstam won the LPGA Championship from 2003-05 and the Mizuno Classic five consecutive times from 2001-05.

The last three-peat was in 2015, when Inbee Park won her third straight Women’s PGA Championship. The other player to three-peat was Lorena Ochoa, who won the Sybase Classic from 2006-08.

That history is something Korda understands and respects but isn’t concerned with.

“To three-peat, obviously, there is pressure that I want to perform, but I try not to think about it,” Korda said. “I try to stay in the present as much as possible, even with all the outside noise.”

She is glad to see the focus on Sorenstam this weekend. The tournament is the only one on the tour named after a former player.

“Super important,” Korda said. “I think it’s great that we’re doing that. I think that grows the game more. I think that makes people more aware of a tournament and brings different crowds in. And it also honors the legends of our game that have done so much for the game.

“So, I think it just checks all the boxes. …Whenever we get to honor the legends that have done so much for the game, I think that’s really good.”

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