Nelly Korda’s swing is the Mona Lisa of golf and, as the AIG Women’s Open approaches, the Englishman entrusted with overseeing the sport’s sweetest motion – of either gender – recognises the dangers of meddling with beauty.
“There is a responsibility,” David Whelan says. “As coaches we are messing with the livelihoods and the legacies and dreams of these young people, and we need to be conscious of what we say and be confident that our advice is not destructive. I’ve been around long enough to know that things can and do go wrong.”
The Sunderland professional’s own playing career is a head case in point. Having joined the paid ranks in 1981, aged 19, Whelan took seven seasons to earn his European Tour card. Yet by then finances were so tight that, in just his second event as a Tour member, his parents had to lend him £500 to play in the Barcelona Open. The faith paid off.
Going into the final round, two shots behind Nick Faldo – the then- Open champion – Whelan clawed back the deficit and then dared to beat the future knight of the realm in a play-off. With the £40,000 jackpot he was in the big time, armed with both the funds and the belief.
Alas, it did not happen. One top 10 in 1989, one top 20 in 1990 and in his first 19 events in 1991 he did not muster a single penny.
His despair on the course mirrored the concern at home. “My wife [Jacqueline] was diagnosed with MS and it was time to bring in a steady wage,” he recalls.
“I always loved the teaching aspect and David [Leadbetter] was first to offer me a job. IMG were opening a bunch of academies around Europe and I was off and running.” The next decade featured Whelan working with a young Paul Lawrie and other Scottish Tour pros such as Gary Orr and Dean Robertson. However, America beckoned.
In 2001, International Management Group set up the tennis and golf academy in Bradenton, Florida and, with a four and two-year-old, the Whelans took the plunge.
For Jacqueline, the move resulted in the chance to be put on an experimental drug.
“For the last 20 years her condition hasn’t worsened at all,” Whelan says. “So health wise it was great and the kids flourished and my role was secure. I’ve been lucky. I got to work with Paula Creamer for 15 years and she won the US Women’s Open in 2010. The year before I was Catriona’s [Matthew] coach when she won the Women’s British Open at Lytham.
“I’ve had a number of other top-threes and top-fives in the majors, and I don’t think Paula did herself justice with the number of majors she won [one]. But it’s not easy to do.
“And in Petr, Nelly and elder sister Jessica [the world No 14] have a father who knows what it involves.”
Korda, the 1998 Australian Open champion, was a fellow coach at the academy, so it was fairly seamless when the girls chose the course over the court.
“It actually wasn’t until 2014 that Petr came into the office and asked me to give Nelly a bunker lesson,” Whelan says. “She was 15 and I’ve been with her since through the juniors and then up through the Tours. Nelly will be the first to say I changed her swing a lot, but she is very naturally talented.
“If I would say I’ve done one thing it has been to give her a much better short game. She’s one of the best out there, if not the best.
“And she is definitely the best driver of the ball I have ever seen. She’s so accurate. And as pretty as it all is to watch, she has the will as well and is not frightened to win.
“You saw that with her major victory and then the gold medal the other week in Tokyo – that was as big as a major. She has risen to No 1 and across the board the stats show how superior she is at the moment. If you look at the fall of the Korean players in the last year, it has opened up and you have to say that she is dominating. I don’t see it stopping any time soon.”
In her past nine events, Korda, 23, has won three times – highlighted by that Women’s US PGA title six weeks ago and the Olympics – and racked up two other top threes, including third at the ANA Inspiration, the season’s first major.
What was a congested picture at the top of the women’s game suddenly has stunning clarity. There is no questioning who is the favourite at Carnoustie this week.
“I think Nelly has surprised many experts,” Whelan, 59, says. “They thought Jess would be the one. I coached Jess, but not any more. And Nelly split with me briefly last year.
“I was shocked and honestly still don’t know what happened. But you don’t take it personally and we were soon back together, and this year has been incredible. I expect her to do well at Carnoustie, unless she gets shafted by the draw.
“That course is probably golf’s toughest test, and yeah, I’ll be worried watching – but not if it blows as I’ve spent a lot of time with her hitting low shots into the wind.
“She has all that is required. In fact, I’m not sure anything in this game is beyond her.”