Danielle Kang had been 0-for-144 in LPGA tournaments before she won her first tournament – and she picked a great event for her breakthrough.
The 63rd KPMG Women’s PGA Championship – formerly called the LPGA Championship – is rich in tradition, being second in longevity and prize money to only the U.S. Women’s Open.
On Sunday Kang became the eighth player to make this major championship her first professional victory. She did it by stringing four birdies in a row on the back nine of the North Course at Olympia Fields Country Club and then hanging on to win by a stroke thanks to a two-putt birdie on the last hole.
Kang became the first American to win the event with a birdie on the 18th hole since Meg Mallon did it in 1991 and she’s just the fourth American champion in the last 20 years. Going into the tournament Kang was only No. 43 in the Rolex Rankings
Her win was built on the back nine birdie blitz, but even that wasn’t quite enough. She had a three-stroke lead after the last of those string of birdie putts dropped at No. 14 but the lead was down to one after she made bogey at the par-3 17th.
“Without drama it’s not a major,’’ said Kang when she could laugh about her near collapse afterwards. Canadian Brooke Henderson, trying to make a successful title defense, actually pulled even with Kang at 12-under-par for a few minutes.
Henderson, playing in the group in front of Kang, rolled a 30-foot eagle putt to within an inch of the cup at No. 18, a par-5 easily reachable in two shots. The tap-in birdie pulled Henderson even with Kang, who was on the tee when Henderson’s putt came so close. Both were at 12-under-par then.
Kang heard the noise from the near-miss, stepped back to regroup and then played the way champions are supposed to play the rest of the way. She blasted her drive down the left side of the fairway, put her second shot from 236 yards to 30 feet below the hole and then lagged to two feet short of the cup.
The tap-in birdie brought an end to her winless record as a professional. Now only Kang and Juli Inkster own wins in both the U.S. Amateur – Kang won it in both 2010 and 2011 – and the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
“Pretty awesome,’’ said Kang. “I feel fantastic, absolutely fantastic.’’
But she still teared up when asked about her late father K.S. Kang, who passed away four years ago after battling cancer. Kang, 24, still writes to him in a journal.
“If I could wish anything I would wish that my Dad saw me win,’’ she said. “It’s been a really difficult road for me for the past four or five years. That’s life, though. You have to pick yourself up, keep working hard and believe in what you’re doing.’’
Kang’s father was of Korean descent and he took the family from California to live there briefly when Danielle and her brother, Web.com Tour player Alex Kang, were growing up. Kang developed her skills at Sherwood Country Club in Los Angeles, a hot spot for celebrities, and she received congratulatory messages on Sunday from Dustin Johnson, Wayne Gretzky, Caitlyn Jenner and Marcus Allen, among many others. She now lives in Las Vegas.
A 68 in the final round gave Kang a 13-under-par 271 total for the 72 holes. Henderson was one shot back after posting a 66 – the low round of the day. Korean Chella Choi, who started the final round tied for the lead with Kang, was another shot back in third.
Kang and Choi started the final round in the last twosome and only Henderson made a serious challenge from the other groups.
“It was a great day for me,’’ said Henderson. “I got off to a pretty fast start – three birdies on the front nine – and I wasn’t really making any mistakes.’’
In her victory last year at Sahalee, in Washington, Henderson closed with a 65 and then beat New Zealand’s Lydia Ko in a playoff. Kang wouldn’t let Sunday’s battle go to extra holes.
“Danielle played great,’’ said Henderson. “When she got to 13-under pretty early in the back nine I knew I had a lot of work to do coming down the stretch. A few days ago I would have been really happy with a second-place finish and, to have the chances and the opportunities that I did the last few holes, I’m happy.’’