LONDON – Golfer Danielle Kang has a small tattoo on her right index finger to remind her of her parents' advice to be herself. "Just be," it says. But those words took on extra meaning after the coronavirus crisis hit the L.P.G.A. Tour in February, and Kang was on top of a receding wave.
At the time the schedule was shelved, Kang, 27, had achieved four top-three finishes, including one win, in her previous five starts. She was No. 4 in the world, as close as she'd ever been to the No. 1 women's ranking, a position that had seemed her destiny since turning pro at the age of 18, less than five years after she reached the
To be heralded as a budding star while still essentially an apprentice had created a perception gap that Kang, a two-time American women's amateur champion, had been impatiently trying to close. That worried those around her when she entered the lockdown. She was always so hard on herself, they thought. Would the negative thoughts aroused by Kang's inner dialogue overwhelm her during a pandemic? The question hung in the air for five long months, but when the LPGA tour recently resumed with two events in Ohio, the answer was clear: Kang won both events to climb to second in the world by very close range from South Korean Jin Young Ko, who has held top spot for more than a year, while Kang starts playing at the Women's British Open at Royal Troon this week.
In Las Vegas, where Kang, a San Franciscan native, lives, jobs remained open during the lockdown, she said, taking full advantage of it. She teamed up with her coach, Butch Harmon, hitting shots with one of her least favorite clubs, the 3-wood, until she was completely confident. She also regularly enlisted her boyfriend, Maverick McNealy, a PGA Tour rookie, for two- and three-hour games around the green, sparking her competitive fire and refining her short game.
"People asked me left and right" Are you sorry you didn't play when you played so well? "" Kang said in a Zoom interview ahead of last week's Ladies Scottish Open. "They asked me, 'What are you going to do if you don't play well when you come back?'"
It was a case of two negatives – others' and hers – which equates to a positive point . "I have this time," she recalls, thinking of her pandemic outbreak, "and I'm going to use it to the best of my ability to improve my game."
The hard work allowed Kang to choose where she left off. Over the past 10 months, Kang & # 39; s lowest finish in eight tour starts has been a draw for 12th. She has three wins, a second and two thirds. Last week, she finished in tie for fifth place, a shot from a four-way playoff, at the Scottish Open.
"She's done great things," marveled Collin Morikawa, who founded the P.G.A. won. Championship two weeks ago. Morikawa, who also lives in Las Vegas, added, "That's Tiger-esque stuff, winning almost three times in a row."
This week Kang will try to claim her second major title, and sixth pro victory, at the Women & # 39; s British Open
The player she's chasing in the rankings, Ko, will be notable for her absence. Ko, who won two of the five women's majors last year, has no L.P.G.A. Tour start since the season ending 2019 Tour Championship. Ko & # 39; s manager told Golf Channel.com last month that Ko & # 39; s return to the tour – and the events surrounding the British Open in particular – is in the air because of her concerns about Covid-19 containment in the UK and US. Ko currently plays on the Korean L.P.G.A. circuit, allowing her to stay close to her home base in Seoul.
South Korean players have won five of the 12 contested majors since Kang & # 39; s victory in the P.G.A. Championship, but global representation has become the tour's calling card; players from four countries have won the seven tournaments contested in this incoherent season.
Kang, an American of South Korean descent, said she kept in touch "with quite a few" of her Korean friends during the tour. The competitor in her wished they were all at Royal Troon this week, but she said she acknowledges that the rigors and dangers of traveling abroad during a pandemic have made playing a moot point for some.
"I'm doing the best I can understand from everyone's perspective," said Kang.
The delicate ecosystem of coronavirus-era sports was driven home last week with the cancellation due to health issues and significant travel restrictions, from the tour's October stop in Shanghai, where Kang is the two-time defending champion.
Kang praised the virus prevention protocols in place during the first LPGA events of the tour's restart. About the Women & # 39; s British Open, she said, "As long as it was possible I came."
The PGA Tour resumed tournaments a month before the LPGA, allowing Kang to hire 24-year-old McNealy. from progressive scout to her strange new world. She questioned him about testing protocols. She asked him what he found the most difficult adjustment to return to the tour game after such a long layoff. He said h to dump a cart and walk the track during her practice laps.
And after his first week back, when he again had to hit approaches at pins that weren't in the middle of the greens. McNealy called the greenskeepers at TPC Summerlin, the Las Vegas course Kang was preparing for, with a favor. "He asked them to put all the pins away for me the last few days of my practice," said Kang.
The gesture was vintage McNealy, she said. “He's as supportive as I am, as a golfer and as a person,” she added. "That's the best way I can put it."
The same week that Kang won the LPGA Drive One Championship in Toledo, Ohio, on the return of the LPGA, McNealy finished seventh at the Barracuda Championship in Truckee, California, which was his sixth tournament back. When they spoke that night, McNealy & # 39; s excitement at Kang's success was palpable, she said.
"He's able to put his own dreams aside and be so happy for me," she said. & # 39; And be happy with me. That's hard to do, especially if you're in the same career.
Kang is on the verge of becoming the third American woman since 2006, after Cristie Kerr and Stacy Lewis to occupy the No. 1 position. That would fulfill the prediction her coach, Harmon, made when she started working together in 2018.
Once Kang believed she was as good as anyone could tell she was, Harmon told her, look out of the world. That should have been empowerment from a teacher who has worked with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson. But Kang still can't help himself.
"He'll say something and I'll say, 'Are you sure? ", Kang said, laughing. "And he'll look at me and say," Am I sure? Listen to me. I know how good it looks. "