LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Danielle Kang didn’t enjoy much of an offseason, but maybe that’s a good thing.
She didn’t lose all that momentum she built late last year.
Kang opened the new season Thursday a lot like she closed last season, knocking down flagsticks and holing a lot of birdie putts.
With an 8-under 63, Kang took the first-round lead at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando. She’s two shots ahead of Inbee Park, Angela Stanford and Gaby Lopez.
Former major league pitcher Mark Mulder leads the celebrity pro-am division with 42 points in the Modified Stableford scoring system. He’s three points ahead of fellow former pitcher Eric Gagne and Chad Pfeifer, a U.S. Army Airborne veteran amputee pursuing his dream as a professional golfer.
“I still pinch myself because being around all these celebrities,” Pfeifer said. “It’s just amazing for me. It's always a great time.”
Kang enjoyed the festive nature of the celebrity pro-am format, too. She made nine birdies against a lone bogey at Tranquilo Golf Club.
“Today felt pretty awesome,” Kang said.
She played alongside country singers Lee Brice and Cole Swindell.
“I played with them last year,” Kang said. “We had a blast out there.”
That pretty much sums up how Kang felt playing with anyone over the last few months.
Kang, 27, won the Buick Shanghai in mid-October for her third LPGA title. A week later, she finished second at the BMW Ladies Championship in South Korea, and then she tied for third at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, Florida, where she made a bold final-round charge.
Cumulatively, Kang was 51 under in those final three starts.
The run of hot play helped Kang soar in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, climbing from No. 16 to No. 4 in the final month of the season. She’s the second highest ranked American in the world now, trailing only Nelly Korda (No. 3).
Is she keeping track as she narrows the lead that world No. 1 Jin Young Ko has built?
“I pay attention because Butch [Harmon] pays attention,” Kang said.
That would be Kang’s swing coach. Kang deflected a question about how important the top ranking is to her.
“I have my goals . . . I think I’ve accomplished today’s goal,” she said.
Kang can’t get to No. 1 with a victory this week. Ko built a big lead in the world rankings with strong play last year.
Still, with Thursday’s start, Kang continues to trend upward. She birdied the first hole of the 2020 LPGA season.
“I haven't actually had an offseason,” Kang said. “I just kept playing. I think I took two days off maybe. I had outings. We played golf in Hawaii, Palm Springs. I've been working with Butch quite a bit. It's kind of a rollover season is how I look at it.”
Kang isn’t lacking a strong support system.
She doesn’t just have Harmon, the coach of many stars, as her swing coach. She has her brother, Alex, a professional golfer with Korn Ferry Tour experience, as a confidant/adviser. She also gets help from her boyfriend, PGA Tour pro Maverick McNealy, and, of course, from her caddie, Olly Brett.
Even Kang’s mother, Grace Lee, chips in when she sees something.
Last fall, Lee told her daughter she really needed to work on her short game. So Kang did. Harmon built a special practice range at Rio Secco Golf Club outside Las Vegas, where Kang lives. She and McNealy put in a lot of good work there.
Now, all that work is coming together for her.
“I'm definitely playing better, just chucking away and hitting good shots,” she said.