LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Danielle Kang asked her to caddie to remind her to focus for at least a minute before she hit a shot. The LPGA major winner had a blast on Day 1 of the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, but did forget her number on the 18th tee box.
“I just hit it,” said Kang. “I usually wouldn’t – I mean, it kind of takes you out of your routine and all that. It’s OK. Sometimes you’ve got to roll with the punches. This type of tournament, you’ve got to have to fun, and it’s more the environment, and that’s what I was enjoying.”
Pro-am golf isn’t for everybody, but Kang has the type of personality that allows her to soak up this experience. She played alongside country music stars Cole Swindell and Lee Brice on Thursday at Tranquilo, opening with a 3-under 68. Kang relied on boyfriend Maverick McNealy for insight into her playing partners. Brice and Swindell happen to be McNealy’s favorite singers. She even asked them to record a little video for him after the round.
Kang and McNealy, a former Standout standout who now plays on the Web.com tour, met at The Summit Club in Las Vegas. Kang said their respect for one another runs deep.
“We inspire each other,” she said. “We motivate each other.”
McNealy was mic’d up for the opening round of the Bahamas Great Exuma Classic. Kang didn’t get to see the telecast because she was en route to Florida for the TOC. She did, however, catch clips.
“I tell him he’s a such a dork,” she said, laughing. “He’s my dork though.”
Kang wouldn’t mind being mic’d up herself for 18 holes – so long as people don’t mind the occasional, accidental curse word, she said.
Kang rushed over to help her playing partners when she was called upon to look at a swing or check out a line. The celebrities are playing in a separate division than LPGA pros – a Stableford format with a $500,000 purse.
Lydia Ko was equally smitten by her playing partners, calling it “hands down the best pairing I’ve ever been in.” Ko played alongside two former MLB catchers in A.J. Pierzynski and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez.
The former No. 1 opened with a 5-under 66, crediting the celebrities for easing her nerves at the first event and taking her mind off the leaderboard.
“Ivan and his caddie were like, ‘Oh, my God, we need lessons afterwards,’ ” said Ko. “I’m like, I can’t even hit a stationary ball, I’m definitely not going to be able to hit a ball that gets thrown that quickly. A.J. lives in Orlando, so he said, maybe I can play a game with him again at Bay Hill. No, they love their golf. They’re super passionate, and they’re super good too.”
Pierzynski was in awe of Ko’s ball-striking and the calm manner in which she approaches the game.
“She hit it perfect every single time,” said Pierzynski. “It made me feel bad. It made me want to get better. I don’t know if I could get there.”
It was a light-hearted affair too. Ko poked fun at Pierzynski on the first tee box when he pulled out an iron.
Marina Alex raved over Toby Keith’s flop shots, calling them professional-worthy. Stacy Lewis was taken back to her childhood along the third base line at Braves games when playing alongside Tom Glavine. While both Glavine and Jon Lester took their games seriously, Lewis said her first tournament back after giving birth to daughter Chesnee had a different but good vibe. Lewis opened with a 66, one stroke back of leaders Brooke Henderson and Eun-Hee Ji.
“They at least waited until the last couple of holes to pull out the beer,” she said with a smile. “But it was fun. It felt like you were kind of going out and playing a round with your buddies versus a golf tournament. It’s a great way to start the year, just being pretty relaxed.”