Nelly Korda sits nine shots back of U.S. Open leader Minjee Lee entering the final round Sunday. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — Nelly Korda walked onto the driving range at Pine Needles Golf Club at 1:20 p.m. on Thursday, an hour ahead of her tee time for her first competitive round in almost four months. A volunteer at the U.S. Women’s Open turned to her before she started her warmup and asked her how she felt after being sidelined since March with a blood clot in her left arm.

“Happy it’s over,” Korda responded.

Three rounds later, Korda is playing like she never left the LPGA Tour. The No. 2 player in the world, despite finishing the third round Saturday with three bogeys in a row, has shot under par in every round of the U.S. Women’s Open. She enters the final round Sunday at four-under and nine shots back of leader Minjee Lee, with much more on her mind than winning.

“I’m just happy to be out here, even though that was a tough pill to swallow,” she said Saturday after her bogey-filled back nine. “I still have one more day, and I’m doing what I love and I’m out here in the heat competing at the U.S. Women’s Open. A couple months back, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be doing that.”

One of the first people Korda told about her uncertain status back in March was close friend Megan Khang. Before Korda announced publicly that she had been diagnosed with a blood clot, and later that she had undergone surgery for it, Khang learned that Korda would be stepping away from the tour. She reminded her friend and the top American golfer on tour that the sport should come second to her health.

During the four-month break, the 23-year-old told Khang she wanted to get back to the course. Khang — who had been spending more time off the course with Korda’s older sister, Jessica, in her absence — encouraged her to return only when she was 100 percent.

“You know Nelly,” Khang said. “She’s a super great competitor. She’s just a different kind of breed in the best way.”

Sophia Popov, a longtime friend of Jessica Korda, could relate to her sister’s situation. The 2020 AIG Women’s Open Champion battled an unknown condition on tour for years, and was finally diagnosed with Lyme Disease in 2017. Popov, knowing how hard it is for any golfer at the top of their game to be away from the game for an extended period of time, watched as Korda dedicated herself to her rehab, working out and dieting to return to full strength.

Before the start of Korda’s warmup on the range Thursday, Popov hugged her.

“I just think she’s a staple out here right now,” Popov said of the seven-time LPGA Tour champion. “I think that’s important to keep her around because it’s more exciting to watch.”

The fans at Pine Needles have felt the same way, standing three to four rows deep along the ropes during Korda’s three rounds. She said the crowds following her were some of the biggest she’d seen on tour, and that the youngest supporters have brought her some of her greatest joys this weekend.

“I really, really love when the little kids and little girls kind of scream my name,” she said. “Some of them even ask me for an autograph during the round, and I just can’t say no. I’m just so happy to be out here.”

Korda’s fans range from teens gleefully taking selfies with her in the background, to young kids getting their first autographs from one of their favorite athletes. They will surely be watching as the 23-year-old aims to climb the leaderboard Sunday and punctuate her return to the tour.

“Nelly’s competing like she never left. It’s always great to see,” Khang said. “And as a friend, I’m super happy she’s feeling healthy and back up for the challenge week in and week out.”

Kent Paisley is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering golf and the LPGA. He also contributes to Golf Digest. Follow him on Twitter @KentPaisley.