True to herself, Danielle Kang rises into lead at KPMG Women's PGA

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

True to herself, Danielle Kang rises into lead at KPMG Women's PGA

LPGA Tour

True to herself, Danielle Kang rises into lead at KPMG Women's PGA

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – Dustin Johnson tells Danielle Kang to keep things simple. Wayne Gretzky reminds her that golf is a marathon, not a sprint. Hollis Stacy texts Kang something positive after nearly round. Olympic legend Caitlyn Jenner has been Kang’s pro-am partner at the ANA Inspiration for years. Kang’s like a big sister to former World No. 1 Lydia Ko, and Michelle Wie, well, the two are so close they have a lifestyle blog together called the “Fore Seasons.”

Success surrounds Kang nearly everywhere she turns, which is partly how she’s been able to climb to the top of the leaderboard midway through the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Plenty of people believe in the two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion.

“I told her that she’s predisposed to win majors,” said Stacy, who won four of her own.

It started at a young age, when Kang’s parents constantly told her to just be herself. The message meant so much that a 17-year-old Kang had the words “Just be” tattooed on a finger.

Not long after her father, K.S., died after a six-month battle with Stage-4 brain and lung cancer, Kang had his name tattooed under her right hand so that when someone shakes her hand, they “meet” her father. Kang used his signature in Korean off a letter that he wrote to her.

There’s a uniqueness about Kang that draws people in. She’s a high-energy, emotionally-charged player who took to aerial workouts after going to a Cirque du Soleil show.

“I’d never thrown up after a workout,” Kang said “and that was the first time.”

Stacy appreciates that Kang doesn’t take herself too seriously. Humor, she said, is an important trait for professional athletes.

She’s also thoughtful. After her father died, Kang carried a small purple notebook to the golf course to write him messages. That hasn’t changed, Stacy said.

The 2016 season was a particular struggle for the fun-loving Kang, who suffered a fractured wrist and three bulging discs in her neck. The injuries kept Kang off the tour for six weeks.

“I was really down when I couldn’t play,” she said.

On Dec. 19, Kang underwent surgery for pterygium, a growth on her right eye caused by excessive sun exposure that impacted her vision.

“Wear your sunglasses,” Kang warned.

Kang wore an eyepatch in the weeks following surgery and said she still has problems on overcast days. She’s had her caddie tend the flag from only 15 feet away.

The wrist still bothers her, but this week at Olympia Fields she told swing coach David Leadbetter to forget about the wrist and tell her what to do.

It wasn’t Kang’s swing that was the problem this week: She walked off the North Course at Olympia Fields feeling “super overwhelmed.” Kang phoned older brother Alex, who plays on the Web.com Tour, for help. Kang sent Alex, who competed at Olympia Fields at the Fighting Illini Invitational while at San Diego State, 10 pictures of the golf course and together they developed a strategy.

Three days later, Kang sits tied for the lead at 7-under 135 with Sei Young Kim.

“It’s probably one of the hardest golf courses I’ve played on our tour,” said Kang, who went 36 holes without a bogey.

Kang, who is winless in her first six years on tour, hit 11 fairways in each of her first two rounds. Stacy said Kang doesn’t even realize how well she drives the golf ball. When it comes to winning major titles, driver is the most important club, Stacy maintains. The World Golf Hall of Famer should know, she won six USGA championships over the course of her career, including three U.S. Women’s Opens and three U.S. Girls’ Junior titles.

This week Kang was among those Americans fitted for Solheim Cup uniforms. Kang currently ranks 10th on the list, trailing Austin Ernst by 24.5 points. The top eight automatically qualify for Juli Inkster’s squad.

Kang admits she got carried away with Solheim Cup rankings, obsessed even. Stacy helped her to see the importance of treating Solheim standings as the result of how she plays, rather than the specific goal.

“She’s ready,” said Stacy. “She’s ready to do whatever she wants.”

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