Kang and Na give Pepperdine a jump on spring

Danielle Kang, right, and Grace Na are best friends on the women's golf team at Pepperdine University in Malibu. Both Kang and Na left high school early to attend Pepperdine.

MALIBU, Calif. – Danielle Kang looks the part of a veteran student-athlete in her oversized hooded sweatshirt. She’s trying to talk her way out of an afternoon basketball class, even though she technically doesn’t have to play and run the risk of injury.

Kang, 18, also plays the part of older sister to Grace Na, a freshman who graduated from high school last month and will bring a much-needed jolt to the Pepperdine lineup. Na watched Kang leave high school a semester early with much success and decided she’d do the same.

“I needed to mature a little bit faster,” Na said. “I thought college had more to offer.”

It’s a common trend at Pepperdine for golfers to rush high school and move to Malibu before they can vote. A campus tour makes it easier to understand why parents would feel safe with this option: Pepperdine is an ocean-lined oasis.

With a little more than 3,000 undergrads and a student-teacher ratio of 14-to-1, there’s a homey feel to this Church of Christ campus. Students often have class in the living rooms of their professors, and the school cafeteria keeps a cozy fire lit, even though it’s 70 degrees and sunny on this midwinter day. There’s a reason this campus turns into a TV studio come summertime.

Taylore Karle, a senior at Pepperdine who will graduate at age 20, followed her brother to Malibu. She rattles off celebrity sightings like a roll call. Britney Spears nearly rear-ended her in the grocery-store parking lot; Adam Sandler played basketball on campus while she jogged; and Pamela Anderson, a regular on campus, has adopted the Waves baseball team. Oh, and Matthew McConaughey often chats with Pepperdine golfers at practice when he’s not shooting a film.

It’s no surprise that players can’t wait to get to Malibu. In fact, it’s a wonder they’d ever want to leave.

“I was really done with high school,” said Kang, the 2010 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion. “For me, prom, walking at graduation really didn’t mean much. Everybody does it; it’s nothing special. It’s special if I leave early.”

Kang battled illness in the fall and globe-trotted, playing a professional event in Japan and the World Amateur Team in Argentina. She played only twice for the Waves, and struggled missing so much class.

“We’re ranked 31st in the country, but I feel like we’re better than that; I really do,” coach Laurie Gibbs said. Pepperdine, a consistent top 10 ranked program over the last 12 years, has eight top 10 NCAA Championship finishes.

The Waves, who open their spring season Feb. 14 at the Northrop Grumman Regional Challenge, will play five regular-season events this spring before the postseason, which means Na has a chance to earn All-American status if she plays to her potential., Nicole Zhang of Notre Dame is the nation’s top-ranked freshman, at No. 21.

“I think she’ll definitely impact us right away,” Gibbs said of Na. “Her game is very mature for her age.”

While Kang, Na, Karle and former Wave Lisa McCloskey finished high school ahead of schedule, international players such as Katherine Hull, Lindsey Wright, Carolina Llano and Leanne Bowditch started college in January because their high school careers ended in December.

The transition is made even easier for Pepperdine freshmen because final exams are wrapped up before NCAA regionals and nationals.

“We would often see girls with textbooks and laptops out, during what is arguably the most stressful and important week in college golf, and not envy them at all,” wrote Bowditch, who finished her Pepperdine career in 2008.

Na won’t have to juggle that stress as a freshman and will have the ability to graduate in 3 1/2 years having played in four NCAA postseasons.

As for Kang, she plans to defend her title at the U.S. Women’s Amateur this summer and then assess her future at Pepperdine.

The pull of the Pacific might not be enough to hold her back.

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