U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
For Kang, 144 Starts, Just One Inspiration
July 11, 2017 | BEDMINSTER, N.J.
By Michael Trostel, USGA
Danielle Kang embraced her father (and caddie), K.S. Kang, on the 17th hole at Charlotte (N.C.) Country Club. She had just made a 4-foot birdie putt to defeat Jessica Korda, 2 and 1, in the 36-hole championship match to win the first of her two consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateur titles in 2010. Her potential appeared limitless and major-championship victories seemed sure to follow.
But success didn’t come easily to Kang when she turned professional in 2011, shortly after repeating in the Women’s Amateur. Over the following five years, she had more than three times the amount of missed cuts (27) as top-10 finishes (8). In 2016, Kang missed six weeks due to wrist and neck injuries, and in December, had surgery on her right eye that still affects her vision on overcast days.
Hardest of all, tragedy struck the Kang family in 2013 when K.S. lost a six-month battle with Stage-4 brain and lung cancer at age 52. Danielle was devastated and it reflected in her game.
“He’s always been my role model and confidant,” said Kang. “I relied on him for confidence and called him every day before I teed off. When I didn’t have him there, it took a huge toll on me.”
In 2014, Kang got a tattoo on the outside of her right hand that says “Dad” in Korean. “I got that so when I shake somebody’s hand for the first time, they can also meet my dad.”
Fast-forward to the 2017 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club, where Kang, now 24, birdied the 72nd hole to beat Brooke Henderson by one stroke for her first professional victory in 144 starts. As she holed her final putt, Kang’s mind flashed back to that first U.S. Women’s Amateur victory.
“When I was playing the U.S. Amateur, my dad was right next to me, caddieing,” said Kang. “All this week I felt it [again]. I don’t know if he was next to me, I’m pretty sure he was, because on the last putt, I just remembered my first U.S. Am win putt. For some reason I thought about it while I was putting.
“I felt his presence.”
While her father was there in spirit, Kang’s mother, Grace Lee, flew to Chicago to watch her daughter for the week.
“The first person I wanted to hug was my mom,” said Kang. “I made sure to locate her when I walked up to the green so she could enjoy the moment. She wasn’t there for the Amateur wins so it was really special.”
It wasn’t just Kang’s first professional win, it was her first top-10 finish in 31 major-championship starts. Her previous best was a tie for 14th in the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open.
After the victory, she flew to her father’s gravesite in California and dropped off a few items she thought that he’d want: a celebratory can of beer, Starbucks dark roast coffee “just the way he liked it with chocolate and cinnamon,” her winning golf ball, the 18th hole flag, her caddie’s bib, and a dozen roses – his favorite flower that he gave Danielle “on nearly every occasion.”
This week, Kang is hoping to add a third USGA championship title to her resume at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. – a course she played as a 16-year-old in the 2009 U.S. Girls’ Junior when she reached the second round of match play.
The 2017 championship will be Kang’s eighth U.S. Women’s Open. While her father may not be walking the fairways with her this week, he certainly will be on her mind.
“I think about him all the time, every day,” said Kang. “I know what he would say to me, so I listen to that voice and let it guide me.”
Michael Trostel is the senior content producer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.