Danielle Kang: Major Champion, with a birdie putt at the last!

OLYMPIA FIELDS, IL - JULY 02: Danielle Kang poses with the trophy after winning the 2017 KPMG Women's PGA Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club on July 2, 2017 in Olympia Fields, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images for KPMG)
OLYMPIA FIELDS, IL - JULY 02: Danielle Kang poses with the trophy after winning the 2017 KPMG Women's PGA Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club on July 2, 2017 in Olympia Fields, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images for KPMG) /

Danielle Kang’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship breakthrough win came after years of work and with family support.

Danielle Kang, low amateur at the 2011 Ricoh Women’s British Open, went winless for 143 LPGA Tour starts. Then everything changed.

With one final birdie putt on the 72nd hole at Olympia Fields, Kang earned her first Tour title, at a major championship.

The Southern California girl who says she would have been an actress if he hadn’t gone pro, who qualified for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open as a talented and precocious 14-year old, who seemed to cap off her amateur career with victory at the 2010 U.S. Amateur, then breezily dismissed her academic ineligibility for the Pepperdine golf team:

"Pepperdine is in the past for me. I’m focusing on the future. Turning pro after the (Amateur)."

Her victory the 2011 U.S. Amateur – she was the first player to win back-to-back titles in 15 years – seemed to validate Kang’s take on Pepperdine and a collegiate golf career. She turned pro and started to scramble.

Danielle Kang earned conditional status for the 2012 season at the Tour’s 2011 Q-School, started at 19 Tour events, made the cut at 13 and finished with $239K in winnings finished 52nd on the Tour’s money list. That got her full playing status. It was by any standard a gloriously successful rookie year.

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From her first LPGA start at the 2012 ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, where she made the cut, finished T66, and took home $2,669 in winnings, through a T3 finish at the 2012 Kingsmill Championship, a T5 at the 2013 HSBS Women’s Champions, back-to-back aces at the 2014 Blue Bay LPGA and Fubon 2014 LPGA Taiwan Championship – that got her two cars  – to her solo 5th place finish at the 2015 Pure Silk Bahamas to her T4 at the 2016 ISPS Hands Women’s Australian Open Danielle Kang worked hard and gave every hole in every round her best.

Two years into her pro career Kang’s father, K.S. Kang, who had been her caddie and spiritual anchor when she won the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Amateurs, died four months after he received a brain cancer diagnosis. Kang had his name tattooed on her hand in Korean, she explained,

". . . so that when I shake somebody’s hand for the first time they can also meet my Dad."

Kang has carried him in her heart and in her head since his death and revealed that felt his presence strongly as she lined up that final pair of putts on the 72nd hole at the Women’s PGA Championship.

"What are the odds that my first win is a major? 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."

Yet Danielle Kang’s father was not her only source of support and guidance during those 72 long holes of competition at Olympia Fields. Her mother was there, right outside the ropes, walking every hole with her. And her brother had something to do with that KPMG Women’s PGA Championship win too.

When Kang felt overwhelmed after an early week practice round she called brother Alex, a Web.com player who was familiar with the Olympia Fields track. They talked. She sent him phone shots of troublesome tee shot positions and together they devised a plan of attack. It worked on the first round, then the second, again for the third and, finally, or the fourth. Her 13-under par was just enough to edge out defending champion Brooke Henderson by one shot.

Here’s how she wrapped it up on Sunday.

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Kang’s swing coach, David Leadbetter, describes her as a perfectionist who has been her own hardest critic. Leadbetter, who sees Kang as a talented athlete with the potential to become a top-10 player, thinks this win may give her the confidence boost she needed to relax and allow the game that’s been locked up inside her to bloom.

Certainly, watching Danielle Kang glide smoothly from tee to fairway to green, broadcasting calendar girl smiles after some seemingly impossible putts to save par, there was no sign of an insecure golfer playing for her first win after 144 starts. I saw a champion plying her trade with skill and grace.

Danielle Kang has learned well Inbee Park’s lessons on patience and perseverance.

Next: Inbee Park: Lessons from the links

Danielle Kang is taking this week off. We’ll see her next at the U.S. Women’s Open, July 13-16 at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, NJ.