Danielle Kang loves the big stage.
She isn’t shy revealing how much she relishes the spotlight and how comfortable she is being the center of attention.
She isn’t afraid of the pressure that comes with that.
“People have told me since I was a little girl that I love the attention,” Kang told GolfChannel.com as she prepares for the LPGA’s season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic. “Anyone who knows me will tell you I thrive on that.”
Kang, 25, showed that to the world last July when she broke through to make her first LPGA title a major championship, refusing to blink while holding off a final-round charge from Brooke Henderson at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. She showed it again two months later, stealing the show with her dynamic first Solheim Cup appearance.
“When you’re on a big stage, and you’re under the pressure that comes with that, people get scared of failing,” Kang said. “I want that challenge. I love being in that position. I’m not afraid to fail.”
The challenge for Kang this year is getting herself on that big stage more often. It’s in elevating her game so she can contend more consistently.
Kang is working on a swing change to try to do that, and she’s training in the gym more than she ever has, to get her body better fit to do what her new swing requires.
“I trained harder than I ever have in any offseason,” Kang said. “I took five days off and that was it. I worked out four days a week, sometimes twice a day.”
After winning back-to-back U.S. Women’s Amateurs, Kang was frustrated trying to follow up that success as a pro. After getting a taste of winning again at iconic Olympia Fields in Chicago last year, Kang wanted more.
The challenge, her swing coach David Leadbetter says, is that she wants it all right now.
“Danielle is a real fighter, a very feisty individual who is very, very determined,” Leadbetter said. “Her goal is to be No. 1 in the world, but she expects so much from herself. If she has a flaw, it’s that she can be too hard on herself. Patience is not her major virtue.”
While Leadbetter may be her swing coach, Kang says a lot of his focus is teaching her patience.
“Yes, it’s not my best quality,” Kang said. “David will give me a drill to work on something, and I’ll hit about 10 balls and want to know what’s next. He is always talking to me about patience. I think he tries to teach me patience by not answering my texts right away.”
Kang said Leadbetter has been preaching patience since they first started working together in 2014.
“Three years ago, David told me I was going to have a big year in 2017,” Kang said. “He told me I was going to win in ’17. I said, 'Are you kidding me? I have to wait three years?’”
Leadbetter told her she might win before that, but something big was going to happen in ’17. So, still winless midway through last summer, she called Leadbetter to blow off some steam the week before the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
“I had just missed the cut in Arkansas,” Kang said. “So I called David and told him, 'Hey, you told me I was going to win in 2017. It’s freaking July, man!’ He told me to relax, it’s coming, and then I won that week.”
Kang’s friend Michelle Wie also encouraged her.
“Not winning, it haunted her, almost,” Wie said. “She was doubting herself a little bit, and I told her at the beginning of the year, 'It’s coming. I bet you a hundred dollars you win before the end of the year.' So now I really enjoy telling her, 'I told you so.' It was huge for her. Winning definitely builds your confidence.”
Kang struggled to contend again in the second half of last year. She pushed Leadbetter before the Asian swing to help her make some swing changes to get longer, though he would have preferred to wait until the offseason. She said her body wasn’t sculpted to make the specific changes, and she ended up pinching a nerve, injuring her scapula. She withdrew from fall events in China and Japan.
“I’ve always done a lot of lateral movement in my swing, sliding to use momentum,” Kang said. “I wanted to be more explosive, and so David’s helping me get more speed and better compression with these changes. Basically, I don’t use my butt enough in my swing. I use my quads.”
Kang said she is working with trainer Brian Chandler in Las Vegas to better shape her body to make the swing changes.
Again, Leadbetter is encouraging her to be patient.
Through her challenges, Kang has always leaned hard on her family: her mother, Grace Lee, and her brother, Alex. She still leans on her father, too, four years after his death. K.S. Kang caddied for her when she won her two U.S. Women’s Amateurs.
Kang says her family always goes the extra mile for her, and she relishes returning the favor.
For her father, she flies the extra 270 miles on a whim.
That’s how far it is from her Las Vegas home to her father’s gravesite in Glendale, Calif. She takes day trips there every now and then just to sit in front of her father’s tombstone and talk. She hops a 5:30 a.m. flight and about 40 minutes later she’s touching down in Los Angeles.
She’s back home by dinner.
“People don’t believe me, but I have never gone a day without speaking to my family members, to my mom and my dad and my brother,” Kang said. “When my dad passed, one of the hardest things for me was not being able to talk to him.”
So she started a journal after he passed, a journal just for him, where she writes down the things she would like to tell him. It’s her way of continuing to talk to him every day. She also got the word “Dad” in Korean tattooed near the palm of her right hand.
If golf fans didn’t know how close Kang was to her father, they learned in heartwarming detail after she broke through to win the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship last summer. She wrote, “We can do it,” to him in her journal the week of the Women’s PGA.
“After he passed, I still kept sending texts to his cell phone,” Kang said. “I finally stopped because I wasn’t sure who was going to receive the messages.”
Kang says her journal is sometimes filled with the simplest things.
“Every day I’ll write something,” Kang said. “It may just be, 'Hi dad, I went to the grocery store today and bought three boxes of cereal because I didn’t know what I wanted.' It’s just a way to keep talking to him.”
So are her day trips to his gravesite. She would love to go there this year to talk about another victory, and how much fun she had being on the big stage.