Sunday
Jul022017

Kang captures Women's PGA, edging Henderson

Writing from Olympia Fields, Illinois

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The power of belief can carry someone a long way, whether that belief is from within or someone close.

Danielle Kang enjoyed that feeling all week at Olympia Fields Country Club.

First it was her brother Alex, to whom she turned when she was vexed as to her game plan on Olympia’s sturdy North Course. He looked at photos she sent him and together, they figured out a plan of attack.

Then she drew on the pleasant memories of conversations and encouragement from her father, K.S., who died of cancer late in 2013. Kang spoke of him in the present tense, and who not, for one of the tattoos on her right hand is “Dad” in his Korean writing.

“He doesn’t talk much. However, when he does say something, it means a lot. He’s the kind of guy that is very positive. Anything is possible. So I always looked at him like he’s magical, because he feels I can do anything,” Kang said late on Sunday afternoon.

After, of course, proving him correct by making a two-putt birdie 4 on the final hole of the final round to win the 63rd KPMG Women’s PGA Championship by a stroke over fast-closing defending champion Brooke Henderson.

Kang rolled in a two-foot putt for her fifth birdie of the back nine, an inward 32, a final round 3-under-par 68, and a total of 13-under-par 271 to win for the first time as a professional – and a major championship at that.

She had won back-to-back U.S. Women’s Amateurs in 2010 and 2011, so using the Bobby Jones tally system, this is her third major championship overall.

It came in dramatic fashion. She birdied four straight holes starting at the par-4 11th, rolling in 73 feet of putts – 12 feet on the 11th, 25 feet on the 12th, 30 feet on the 13th, and six feet on the 14th after a brilliant approach out of the rough 132 yards distant – to first climb back into a tie for the lead with Henderson and Chella Choi, and then build a three-stroke lead.

But Kang failed to save par from a greenside bunker on the par-3 17th, falling to 12-under. Minutes later, Henderson tapped in a 2-inch birdie putt at the last after leading a 30-foot eagle putt that short, and they were tied.

Kang’s 233-yard approach from the 18th fairway finished 25 feet below the hole. Two putts meant a birdie and victory, but there was work to be done.

“The first putt, I was just more worried about getting that speed right, because it was kind of gusty,” Kang said.

It finished two feet short by her estimation.

“Let me tell you, that was the hardest two-footer I’ve ever had to putt,” Kang said. “I had to tell myself, ‘Danielle, you don’t miss two-footers, so just putt it.’

“It was pretty nerve-wracking, but I just did it.”

It fell perfectly, the last of 40 birdies on the final hole on Sunday. Kang is the first to win with a birdie at the last in the LPGA / Women’s PGA since Meg Mallon in 1991.

“I just wanted to finish it off after a rocky start,” Kang said, thinking back to her three-putt bogey on the 10th hole. The four-birdie binge followed immediately.

“That was actually the turning point for me,” Kang said of the three-putt. “I said, ‘You know what, if I’m going to three-putt from 20 feet, I’m going to learn from it.’ Let’s just not hit it as hard.”

Like a Fourth of July fireworks display, they went boom-boom-boom-boom into the cup the next four holes.

A critical par-save on the par-4 16th via a 19-foot putt kept her at 13-under and made the bogey on the 17th less harmful to the cause.

“It looked like a 50-footer to me,” Kang said of the putt on the 16th.

By this point, it was between her and Henderson unless Choi, who bogeyed Nos. 9 and 11 to fall to 9-under, then birdied the 16th, birdied in. She did not, and finished with a par 71 for 10-under 274. Thus, Henderson’s birdie-birdie finish for 12-under 272 was the only pressure put on Kang on the back nine. She answered with a flourish.

Henderson, whose defense fell just short, wasn’t at all displeased.

“The birdie on 17 meant I had a chance,” said Henderson, whose 5-under 66 was the best round of the day. “On 18, that putt, I took some extra time, walked it twice to get the pace right. Missed it by an inch.”

And right in the jaws. This time, Henderson did not score for Canada. Maybe it was that string of pars from the 10th through the 16th that hurt more.

“I had a mix of good putts and some that could have been a bit better,” Henderson said. “I can’t complain. But if I made one or two, it would have been different.”

Kang had come close before, but in 143 previous starts as a professional had never finished better than in a tie for third, and her best finish in a major was a tie for 22nd in the 2013 LPGA Championship, as this fandango was then named. The close calls were, of course, nothing compared to losing her dad nearly four years ago after his long battle with brain cancer.

“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 keep working hard at it, then believe in what you’re doing.

“I know he (her dad) is here for it. What are the odds that my first win is a major? I’m pretty sure he had something to do with it. I felt him with me every day, and I still do.

“Over that last putt, for some reason, I remembered him telling me, ‘I’ll buy you a TV if you make this four-footer at the U.S. Am.' I remembered it. So I wasn’t even worried about the putt.”

It fell. So, as she told the story, did a tear.

Around Olympia

A severe squall lashed the course and the surrounding area about a hour after Kang sank the winning putt, blowing much that wasn’t nailed down through the air with winds estimated at 60 mph. Some trees were said to have been felled as well. But after that came a rainbow. The pot of gold seemed to be somewhere on the South Course, ticketed for Kang. ... Kang was pelted with pretzels, and then golf tees, by pal Michelle Wie while sitting in a radio booth in the press center and doing one last interview. Kang finally turned around and said, “How old are you?” giggling all the while. ... The field average for Round 4 was 71.853 strokes, moving the overall average of 72.305. ... Thirty-five players broke par for 72 holes, with another 10 at even par 284. ... World No. 1 So Yeon Ryu finished tied for 14th with a 1-over 72 for 4-under 280, but still made $47,606. ... World No. 3 Lydia Ko had an awful weekend, finishing 76-76 for 5-over 289. She made $8,686.

Tim Cronin

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