OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – Grace Lee put a note in her daughter’s bag on Sunday morning that said “Dad is with you.”
Danielle Kang’s father died in November of 2013 after a six-month battle with Stage-4 brain and lung cancer. K.S. Kang caddied for Danielle in both of her U.S. Women’s Amateur victories, and with Danielle playing alongside Chella Choi in the final round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, Lee wanted to emphasize her late husband’s presence as Choi had her own father on the bag.
“I felt his presence,” said Kang. “Everything was going my direction.”
Lee, who wasn’t on hand for Kang’s Women’s Amateur victories, sat near the 18th green with her hands folded in front of her face as her daughter needed to two-putt from 30 feet to win for the first time on the LPGA in her 144th start.
“She’s a drama queen,” Lee said with a laugh.
The memory of the putt she needed to win her first Women’s Amateur title (and the TV her dad promised her) flashed through Kang’s mind before she converted from two feet to become a major champion. Moments later, she locked eyes with her mother and waved her onto the green where they shared a warm embrace.
A teary-eyed Bo Wie, mother of Michelle, came over a few minutes later for a hug. Michelle Wie and Kang are so close they started a lifestyle blog together, though they’ve been lax in updating it lately. There’s certainly something worthy of writing about now.
Wie, the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open winner, said they’ve been in constant contact this week.
“If I don’t text her in six hours she sends me 50 messages,” Wie said, grinning.
In fact, they’ve formed their own book club of sorts. A restless Danielle tried to get lost in one prior to the final round.
What’s different about Kang this season?
She’s more mature for starters, Wie said. With the help of instructor David Leadbetter, Kang learned how to control her ball flight. She’s longer too, Wie said.
“She was losing faith just because the first win hadn’t come yet,” said Wie. “I definitely know that feeling. To her it seemed like I got it really early, but there were so many years where I didn’t get a win and I was so close.”
Kang wanted to be tied for the lead and in the final group so that she could treat Sunday like a match-play situation in order to play aggressively. She got her wish, but it was the major champ in the group ahead who posed the biggest threat.
After Kang three-putted the 10th hole, she found herself down one stroke to Choi and 2016 KPMG champ Brooke Henderson. She called that a turning point as her brother Alex’s voice popped in her head.
Alex, a Web.com player who helped Kang map out the course at the start of the week via phone, often reminds her to keep her head down.
Kang poured in birdie putts on the next four holes to take a three-stroke lead with three to play.
“When you’re making putts you feel unstoppable,” said Kang.
Henderson looked like she might have something say about that when she drained a rare birdie on the 17th hole to get within one after Kang dropped a shot on the same hole.
Henderson ripped a 3-wood into the par-5 18th from 236 yards uphill and into the wind, reaching the green in two.
She stalked the 30-foot eagle putt, hoping to have a second straight magical finish.
The putt came up one rotation short. A stunned Henderson stared at the ball when she got to the hole, willing it to fall.
“I left it 1 inch short,” she said, “and that inch really cost me.”
Kang came up clutch once again on the 18th, converting a tricky 2-foot birdie putt to close with a 68 and finish alone at 13-under 271. She’s the first player to birdie the 72nd hole to win this championship by a single stroke since Meg Mallon in 1991.
Kang is also the first American since Cristie Kerr in 2010 to win the tour’s flagship major. Fifteen of the past 16 KPMG Women’s PGA Champions were won by international players.
“It has been a really difficult road for me the past four or five years,” said Kang, who has also dealt with a number of injuries. “It’s life, though. You have to pick yourself up, and you have to keep working hard at it, and then believe in what you’re doing.”
Kang walked into her post-round press conference FaceTiming her brother. She turned the phone around to the assembled reporters so they could say hello.
The high-strung, vibrant Kang had an endless scroll of text messages that she had yet to get to.
A number of friends from Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where she used to practice had reached out to offer their congratulations. Kang has an all-world friend list.
She called out some notables as she scrolled: Wayne Gretzky, Caitlyn Jenner, Marcus Allen and Dustin Johnson.
“I didn’t know I knew this many people,” she said, laughing.
After her father died, Kang started writing notes to him every day in a journal. On Sunday morning, she wrote: “Just keep watching. I got it.”
And she did. Her only wish was that he’d been there to see it.