Korda sisters play down rivalry in the hunt for the CME Group Tour Championship prize

Nelly Korda, the top-ranked American golfer in the CME Group Tour Championship, is tied for third at 9-under 135 after the second round. Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

NAPLES, Fla. -- Standing on the ninth tee at the Miramar Golf Country Club in New Taipei City, Taiwan, earlier this month, five-time LPGA winner and eight-year veteran Jessica Korda, 26, started crying.

Just moments before tears started to roll down Korda's face, one of her final pairing partners, South Korean golfer So Yeon Ryu, casually brought up the possibility of Korda's younger sister Nelly winning the Taiwan Swinging Skirts LPGA for the second year in a row. For the eldest Korda sister, even thinking about the potential of seeing her sister win made her cry.

Since Nelly joined the LPGA Tour in 2017, Jessica had never seen her win a tournament.

Even though Nelly started that day with a three-stroke advantage over Minjee Lee and a four-shot lead over Caroline Masson, the 21-year-old American couldn't hold on to the lead during the front nine and ended up keeping her title defense alive in a playoff hole. It all came down to a perfect 5-hybrid to set up for birdie on the first playoff hole to take home her third LPGA title.

"I was not only proud of her from a sister standpoint but a professional standpoint. Seeing how she's grown. Seeing her make so many mistakes coming down the stretch and then just fighting back and not giving up," Jessica emotionally recalled of that Sunday. "She's grown more this year than any other year on tour. And it was so cool to finally see her win. I have tears in my eyes just thinking about it."

Claiming two wins this year and sitting No. 3 in the Rolex rankings, Nelly became the best American player in her third season on the LPGA Tour this year. And as the season comes to an end this weekend at the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, Florida, the younger Korda sister -- who is tied for third on the leaderboard at 9-under 135 -- knows this is still just the beginning. No matter what happens, she's in good company with her older sister, who is also atop the leaderboard at 7-under 137.

"It feels amazing to have her with me at tournaments," Nelly said. "I never feel alone. I always have someone with me, and that's something that I know a lot of the other girls on tour struggle with out here because it can be lonely. But to have my sister out there, I always have someone to escape to."

This year in particular, the Korda sisters have bonded more on the golf course than ever before. And for the both of them, this on-the-course bond has just solidified their friendship and sisterhood even more.

In July at the inaugural Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, the Korda sisters teamed up for the first time in their professional careers to take on the 72-team field competing for a $2 million purse. Finishing tied for 12th at 15 under, "Team Jelly" wanted to continue their pairing a few months later at the Solheim Cup.

"I didn't really know how to approach her on the golf course before our first team event. It was great we had so much time at the Dow event and that just transferred over to the Solheim," Jessica said. "It took some convincing of captain Juli Inkster to let us play together at first. We were like, 'We want to play together, we want to play together. Put us in, Coach!' And the fact that she trusted us and let us play, it was just great."

Taking on Team Europe in September, the Kordas dominated in the first sister pairing at the Solheim Cup (Annika and Charlotta Sorenstam both played for Europe but never partnered together). The sisters posted the only full point for the Americans on the first day of play.

Team Europe claimed the Solheim Cup, but both Kordas agree that playing together at Gleneagles in Scotland was the highlight of their 2019 seasons.

"I'm really proud of myself how consistent I've been this year," Nelly said. "But I think probably playing with my sister at the Solheim Cup, that was really special. I'm going to look back to that moment for the rest of my career, and life, actually. Playing with your best friend and representing your country, that was just a blast for us."

This week, both sisters compete for the largest prize in women's golf history: $1.5 million. And after a standout season from Nelly, all eyes remain on her as the top-ranked American player.

"It's a cool accomplishment to be the highest-ranked American," she said, "but definitely my No. 1 goal as a professional golfer is to be the No. 1 golfer in the world."

Despite the outside pressure and chatter, Nelly remains grounded, saying this week is just like any other tournament -- with a few added bonuses. She is in her home state of Florida. Her sister is playing. Her family and friends are present. And she's just going to play her game the same way she's played all year.

"There are definitely a lot of expectations from everyone this week, but I'm not trying to think about it too much. I'm trying to take it shot by shot," Nelly said Thursday. "That's been my mentality for the last two years, and I'm just trying to stick with that."

What if the Korda sisters go head-to-head this weekend for the title?

"Everyone wants to build this rivalry between us. And yes, obviously we are competitive. But at the same time we are not mean. We are always going to help the other one out. At the end of the day, we are sisters. We are best friends," Jessica said with a smile on her face.

"The rivalry thing is a real thing that people want to say about us," Nelly added. "And I think they want to see that rivalry. People just think that we are really intimidating. But it's just that when it comes to the golf course, we are in the zone. I'm in the zone on the golf course. So, whatever happens, happens. But there's no real rivalry."