OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – Danielle Kang mingles with a lot of star power.
She is friends with NHL legend Wayne Gretzky, with PGA Tour world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, and with Caitlyn Jenner, the Olympic gold medal decathlete. She is pals with Lydia Ko and Michelle Wie.
Kang grew up in Southern California, played golf at Pepperdine in Malibu and with celebs at some of the elite clubs around Los Angeles. She doesn’t have to reach out to her famous friends for encouragement, advice or inspiration.
She just turns on her cell phone, and it’s there.
As it was when she woke up Saturday as the co-leader of the third round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club.
“Wayne texted me this morning,” Kang said. “It was pretty cool.”
That’s Wayne, as in “The Great One,” the greatest scorer in NHL history, the winner of four Stanley Cups.
Gretzy boiled down Kang’s challenge this weekend at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship to its simplest form.
“He said, 'Just go win it,'” Kang said. “I was like, 'It’s the third round.' ... And he’s like, 'Just go get it done.'”
Jenner called her, too.
So did Hollis Stacy, the World Golf Hall of Famer and four-time major champion.
“I have a lot of people just beyond that, just calling me up and encouraging me to keep playing my game, rooting for me,” Kang said. “I love it.”
Come Sunday, Kang’s own star could rise in women’s golf.
With a 3-under-par 68 Saturday, Kang continues to hold a share of the lead going into the final round. At 10-under, she’s atop the leaderboard with Chella Choi (67), two shots ahead of former world No. 1 Jiyai Shin (64) and three ahead of Brooke Henderson (69), the defending champion.
Kang, 24, is looking to break through in a big way in her sixth season on tour. The former two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur is looking to make her first LPGA title a major.
“It would be incredible to be called a major champion, especially out on this tour,” Kang said.
But the challenge for Kang has never been motivation. In fact, the people closest to her know she’s probably wanted this breakthrough too much.
“Patience is a word I use a lot with Danielle,” said David Leadbetter, Kang’s coach. “Sometimes, she tries too hard. She fights with herself, and she is so hard on herself. She’s been too desperate to win.”
Kang confessed she has been frustrated and down in the past about her inability to follow up her two U.S. Women’s Amateur victories with an LPGA title.
But she’s listening to all these people preaching patience.
Kang says she isn’t obsessing over winning anymore. She’s focused on the work, instead, on improving her skills and not beating herself up so much over the results.
She was asked what change in her approach has most led her to Sunday’s opportunity in surburban Chicago.
“If I have to pinpoint, it would be changing an attitude, that winning is not everything,” Kang said. “That’s the change.”
No matter what happens Sunday, Kang is already enjoying her best year on tour. She has four top-10 finishes this year, more than in any of her previous five seasons on tour. She has earned her first lead or co-lead in the final round of a major. She is playing in the final group in the final round of a major for the first time.
These are all giant steps for her.
A year ago, Kang suffered through a left wrist fracture, bulging discs in her neck and eye surgery. There has been a lot of work giving herself this Sunday chance.
There’s been a lot of fight getting this chance, too.
“She probably argues with me more than any student I have,” Leadbetter said. “She questions me more than anyone.”
Leadbetter likes what he sees behind the grilling he gets from Kang.
“She has no fear,” Leadbetter said.
That can’t hurt her going into her first final Sunday pairing in a major.