OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – Danielle Kang broke through in spectacular fashion Sunday at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
She broke through all the doubt, disappointment and frustration that mounted trying to live up to the hype that came with turning pro after winning back-to-back U.S. Women’s Amateur championships.
Kang, 24, said working through her struggles to finally win in her sixth LPGA season made the victory especially satisfying, but it came with one regret.
“I don't know what it would have felt like to win right away as a rookie,” Kang said. “However, if I could wish anything, I would wish that my dad saw me win.”
Kang’s father died from brain and lung cancer during her second LPGA season.
K.S. Kang was Danielle’s caddie for her U.S. Women’s amateur victories in 2010 and ‘11
“I think that it's been a really difficult road for me for the past four or five years,” Kang said. “It’s life, though. You have to pick yourself up, and you have to keep working hard at it, and then believe in what you're doing, and not letting yourself down.”
In Sunday’s finish, after Kang two-putted from 30 feet for birdie to win her first LPGA title in her 144th start, Kang said her father’s spirit felt especially near.
“What are the odds that my first win is a major?” Kang said. “I'm pretty sure he had something to do with it. It's just incredible. But I know that he was there, because I felt him. I felt him with me every day, and I still do.”
Kang said she could hear her father’s voice as she cleaned up that last putt, which closed out a 3-under-par 68 and sealed a one-shot victory over Brooke Henderson (66), who birdied the final two holes. She remembered what her father told her before she cleaned up a final 4-foot putt to win her first U.S. Women’s Amateur.
“For some reason, I remembered my dad telling me, `I'll buy you a TV if you make this,’” Kang said. “So I wasn't even worried about the putt.”
K.S. was a telecommunications executive in South Korea.
The triumph was very much a family affair, Kang said.
Danielle’s brother, Alex, a Web.com Tour player, helped her devise a long-distance game plan early in the week, after she left her practice round Tuesday “overwhelmed” by the challenge Olympia Fields presented. She sent Alex smart phone photo snapshots off tee boxes, asking how she ought to attack certain holes. Alex, who knew the course, helped her map out her plan.
Kang’s mother, Grace Lee, walked the course all week rooting for her daughter.
“I'm so blessed to have her with me, for her to witness my first win, because she actually didn't get to watch me win the Ams,” Kang said. “She wasn't there for that.
“My mom believes in me, just as much as my dad did.”
Kang has a tattoo on the edge of her palm on her right hand, with the word “dad” scripted in Korean. It’s in her father’s handwriting. Danielle says she put it there so when she shakes hands with somebody, they meet her father.
Even now, Kang says she keeps communication going with her father. She keeps a journal in which she writes notes to him.
In fact, she wrote something to him this week.
Kang wrote “We can do it” in Korean.
“He used to tell me, `You trust me,’” Kang said. “And I kept saying that to him this week, `Just trust me, I got it.’ I said that to him this morning.”
The journey to Kang’s first victory was arduous.
Through her first five seasons on tour, she rarely contended. The five top-10 finishes she has recorded this year are more than she has posted in any other season.
In 30 previous majors, her best finish was a T-14 at the U.S. Women’s Open in 2012.
David Leadbetter, Kang’s swing coach, says she’s a major talent, but she was probably too desperate to win through her pro career. He said she tried too hard, and she beat herself up too much over results.
“She’s such a perfectionist,” Leadbetter said. “And, sometimes, her emotions get away from her.”
Kang resolved to work on it this year, and Leadbetter said he could see her maturing in so many ways in that work.
“Hopefully, this will give her some peace and be a catalyst for some great golf, because she can be a top-10 player,” Leadbetter said.
Kang showed what she can do at her best Sunday - rolling in putts from all over the place, making four consecutive birdies on the back nine to build a three-shot lead. She showed just how patient she’s becoming, holding off a hard-charging Henderson. Kang rebounded from a bogey at the 17th to close with that winning birdie.
“I just kept trusting in my own game and trusting in my putting,” Kang said. “It's all about believing in what you can do.”