PINEHURST, N.C. - Fans will line the ropes surrounding the 10th tee at Pinehurst No. 2, hoping for a glimpse of the game’s brightest when the U.S. Women’s Open kicks off Thursday.
When Danielle Kang’s name is announced, though, she won’t be thinking about a single one of the patrons watching her. Her mind will be elsewhere, thinking about one who is not there, the one who was on her bag the last time she was at Pinehurst and the one she wishes was there more than anything – her dad, K.S. Kang, who passed away in November after battling brain and lung cancer.
He would have never missed this. Not in a million years.
“Every shot I play or every step I take here is for him,” Kang said.
He was always there, and he’ll be there this week, too. He’s there on her wrist in a tattoo she got after his passing. He’s there in the form of a black ribbon with a rose on it that her mom, Grace Lee, made that she’ll wear each day of the tournament.
“I just really wanted him to be with me at all times,” Kang said. “I see the memories.”
That’s especially true at Pinehurst. How could she not? He’s the only reason she already has experience on the redesign of Pinehurst, winning the 2011 North & South Amateur just months after the redesign was complete.
It was a tournament she initially didn’t plan on playing, but her dad talked her into it. With him on the bag, she won, and the memories of that week have flooded back. Walking down the second fairway Monday, she remembered a rain storm popping up in 2011 and him taking off back down the fairway to the car to grab the umbrella they forgot. Every piece of this place brings back a memory, a moment with her dad.
So do USGA events. He was on the bag when she dominated the 2010 U.S. Women’s Amateur just down the road in Charlotte, N.C. and again when she repeated in Rhode Island in 2011. He was there, too, when she qualified as a 14-year-old for the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles just down the street from No. 2. She went to visit his grave site with her brother, Alex, before leaving for Pinehurst.
“I have great memories with the USGA. Every USGA event my dad’s been with me and this is the first USGA event my dad won’t be joining me,” she said. “The fact that he caddied for me at Pinehurst in 2011 and won and I wasn’t actually going to play that tournament but my dad said ‘Let’s go play and see how we play it for the 2014 US Open.’ He talked about this year’s U.S. Open in 2011, and we came out here and won it.”
Of all the 156 players in the field this week, this event might mean more to her than anyone else. All season long she’s prepared for this, working diligently with her coach on a cut shot and a higher draw to be ready for this week.
“I honestly did everything I can to be prepared for this week,” she said. “I told my coach well before this week even began that all I wanted to do was be prepared for the Open. As long as I can step up to the No. 1 tee and be prepared, then whatever happens, happens.”
Her strength is her ball-striking and Pinehurst No. 2 fits her eye. Every shot’s a challenge, and she’s always loved the tougher courses that majors bring.
“Everyone’s going to be struggling, you just have to be patient,” she said. “I like seeing when people are challenged to just hit a simple shot. Even if you hit a shot two feet off the green, I want there to be a challenge in every single shot you hit. The difficulty level is so high and I love it.”
Throughout her walks around this week, she’s remembered the advice that her dad gave her in 2011 that was all geared towards this event. He’d talk about where they should hit it in three years and what holes would play the toughest and where to remember to miss it. Everything that week was geared for this week, this opportunity for Kang to get her third win in North Carolina.
“This is huge, especially this year it’s going to mean so much to me,” Kang said. “I gave my dad all my USGA medals and when he passed away, I got them all back. I got a ring and I had 4 medals. I didn’t even know I had 4 medals. It means a lot to me this week.”
If Kang is able to get another one this week, her dad may not be one of the Sunday patrons sitting in the risers surrounding the 18th green or the caddie handing her the flat stick for her final putt, but he will be there.
“It’s weird that I walked this golf course with my dad knowing I would be back down here,” Kang said. “But I know he is with me, and there’s not a second that I don’t think about him.”