Danielle Kang ‘forever a champion, always was forever a daughter’ at Women’s PGA Championship

By Mike Lopresti
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Danielle Kang ‘forever a champion, always was forever a daughter’ at Women’s PGA Championship

They are all someone’s daughters, or sisters. As they came one after another, fighting their way through Sunday at Olympia Fields, that’s what was impossible to miss.

Because by the end, when Danielle Kang wiped away tears after the first major victory she has chased for so long, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship had become a seminar on the value of family.

That starts with her. On the outside of Kang’s right hand is a one-word tattoo. It is “Dad,” in Korean. Cancer took K.S. Kang four years ago. Sunday, his little girl birdied No. 18 for not only the Women's PGA title, but her first win as a professional, after 144 starts.

Earlier this week: “I got it there, so when I shake somebody’s hand for the first time, they can also meet my dad.” Sunday: “I think about him all the time, every day.”

We should meet her brother, too. Danielle took pictures of the potential trouble spots on the course earlier this week, sending them off for expert analysis to Alex Kang, a Tour member who has played Olympia Fields. He sent back advice. So she played with her father on her hand, and her brother’s voice in her head. And when she won, a hug from her mother on the 18th green. “I am who I am because of them,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here without them, and I genuinely mean that.”

And she wasn’t alone. Who was the caddie so indispensable to runner-up Brooke Henderson, the phenom from Canada who won this event at 18, and looked Sunday as if she might do it again at 19, until Kang beat her with the 72nd hole birdie?

Older sister Brittany. “My best friend, my caddie, my sister,” Brooke said. “It’s amazing to go through this journey together. I grew up always looking up to her, always trying to follow in her footsteps, and now we’re trying to do this incredible career together.”

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Who was it, intently studying the yardage book while Chella Choi pondered her next shot, as she tried to chase Kang, before settling for third?

That was her father Ji Yeon, a former national policeman back in Korea who caddied for his daughter for years before deciding to retire. Her career quickly sagged. Daaaaaaad, SOS. Suddenly, he was back at work, and the two of them had a go at this together.

Whose inspiration did Lexi Thompson carry every step of this tournament on the way to a tie for seventh place? Every. Single. Step.

Her mother Judy Thompson, already a breast cancer survivor, back home fighting uterine cancer. “My role model in life, the strongest woman I know,” Lexi sent out in Instagram this weekend. “Now I realize where I get my strength.”

But Sunday belonged to Danielle Kang, the California girl who counts celebrities as friends. Wayne Gretzky, for instance, was sending messages of support all week, cheering for her breakthrough. She had never finished higher than 14th in a major, after winning two U.S. Amateurs in 2010 and ’11.

There had been little red, white or blue about this tournament lately, with one American winner in 16 years. She became the second, two days before the 4th of July. She played Sunday after a restless night, excitement and nerves breaking up sleep. “It felt like I was a kid waiting for Christmas morning,” she said. But also something else. “I just told myself it was my week, and it was my day.”

There was enough confidence for the biggest day of golf of her life so far, but from where? “When I was playing the U.S. Amateur, my dad was right next to me. You have that utter confidence that no one can get in your way, and today I felt that. All week I felt it. I don’t know if he was next to me, I’m pretty sure he was, because on the last putt, I just remembered my first U.S. Am win putt. For some reason I thought about it while I was putting that.

“I felt his presence.”

It was two weeks ago that she sent out an Instagram message on Father’s Day to the dad she lost. “Although distance may separate us, I feel your guidance every day. I know you’re with me every step of the way. Love you.”

So the families walked with the contenders at Olympia Fields, whether they were actually present or not. Danielle Kang shook lots of hands Sunday evening. K.S. Kang was there for every last one of them. She’s now forever a champion, always was forever a daughter.