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Harmon working to erase Kang's 'mental demons'

Danielle Kang at the 2018 Buick LPGA Shanghai
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It isn’t easy getting on Butch Harmon’s calendar.

It’s even tougher staying on it.

The most famous coach in the game doesn’t take on many new students, and so it says something when he decides to invest himself in a player, especially when he reaches outside his small PGA Tour stable and over to the LPGA ranks.

Danielle Kang knows that.

She is more than Harmon’s newest student. She is his newest project.

Kang won the Buick LPGA Shanghai last week, a month after going to work with Harmon. She tied for third at the KEB Hana Bank the week before, in her first start after they teamed up.

“I was intrigued by the kid’s tremendous, raw talent,” Harmon said. “She’s feisty. She has a lot of fire, and I like that about her. She really wants to win.

“I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. We’re just getting started. She’s going to get a hell of a lot better than she is right now, I’ll tell you that.”

That sums up the potential Harmon saw in their first session together.

"I told her I thought we had a good chance of doing something special," Harmon said. 

Mired in a slump, suffering from what she called the full swing and putting yips, Kang had an inroad to Harmon through her pal, Dustin Johnson. Harmon helped Johnson ascend to world No. 1. 

"Dustin had been telling her for four years, 'You live in Vegas. Butch is in Vegas. You need to go see him,'" Harmon said. “She finally called me.”

Kang, 26, unloaded her frustration.

A two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champ as a teenager, Kang broke through spectacularly last year with David Leadbetter as her coach, winning the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship to make her first LPGA title a major.

Something went awry while wanting more this year, with Kang growing frustrated in a slump. She missed three cuts in a row before beginning the Asian swing and five of six cuts going back farther in the summer. She told Harmon she was in such a bad state, she was freezing over the ball, unable to take the club back.

“I think she was talking to too many people, listening to too many things,” Harmon said. “She just had too many thoughts in her head.”

And that’s where Harmon went to do most of his work. In Kang’s head.

“She had some mental demons,” Harmon said.

At the start of their first four-hour session, Harmon asked Kang to open up to him.

“She talked about how lost she felt, lost doing this, lost doing that,” Harmon said. “Everything was negative. We had to go to work getting a lot of those negative thoughts out of her head.”

Kang confirmed that.

“We just kind of simplified the game and a lot of the things going on in my head, with the swing and all that,” Kang said. “Just trying to calm it down, and get back to how I used to play, just more feel golf.”

Harmon said fixing Kang’s swing was easy. She was coming across the ball too much, he said, and they worked to change her swing path, getting her to swing down the line and changing her release. He worked on her feel by getting her to hit draws with a wedge.

“She had never done that before,” Harmon said. “She cut everything, but she loved how she was starting to hit everything in the center of the club face.

“It isn’t like I had to make drastic changes. It was more about working on her head than the mechanics of the swing. I told her the work we are doing is geared to make her better, but you can’t play golf being negative. She has to get the hell out of her own way. She has to be mentally strong.”

Harmon said he uses Johnson as a model for Kang, praising Johnson’s ability to forget bad shots and the bad feelings that come with them. 

“It’s easier said than done, but I told her I’m going to keep harping on her,” Harmon said.

Kang has a way of making their work interesting.

“She’s fun to be around,” Harmon said. “She drops more F-bombs than I do, which I kind of like. She’s quirky, and she speaks her mind, and that sometimes gets her in trouble. But then again, I have that same problem. We have similar personalities.”

Though Harmon was back in the United States when Kang won in Shanghai, he was totally invested, texting Kang before and after rounds.

“I think she should be a top-five player in the world,” Harmon said. “She should win two, three, four times a year. She wants to be the best, and she can be. She has a tremendous upside.”