OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – This is not supposed to happen. No, first LPGA wins do not come in majors. No, untested players do not make four birdies in a row under back nine pressure. No, the new kid on the block does not birdie the last hole to win the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
But Danielle Kang is not your run of the mill new kid. She’s the two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur winner everyone has been waiting to have a day like this. She was simply sensational Sunday at Olympia Fields, closing with a 68 to finish at 13-under-par 271 for a one-stroke victory.
What made it even more impressive is that she held off a hard-charging Brooke Henderson, who won this tournament last year at the tender age of 18 and closed birdie-birdie in this final round to apply the kind of pressure than has crumbled more than one professional. But Kang had no crumble in her.
“The three-putt on No. 10 was the turning point for me,” Kang said about a cringe-worthy missed 3 footer. “I said I’m going to learn from that and then I made four birdies in a row.” Just as important was a 21-footer to save par on No. 16. It was a gutsy effort by a 24-year-old who smiled her way around the course, winning hearts along the way.
“Having a major championship in my resume, I don’t know what it will do,” Kang said. “But I do know that having the U.S. Amateur as majors, and having a major win, it’s amazing.”
Chella Choi, who started the final round tied with Kang at 10 under par, three strokes ahead of Henderson, closed with a 71 to finish third at 274. Amy Yang picked up her 16th top-10 in a major without a win, finishing T-4 at 275 along with Mi Hyang Lee and Sei Young Kim. Inbee Park and Lexi Thompson were T-7 at 277.
As they turned to the back nine, Kang and Choi, who were playing together, and Henderson, in the group in front of them, were all at 10 under par. Kang slipped out of the lead with that ugly bogey then began the four-birdie run that gave her a three-stroke lead after 14 holes.
Kang’s guts and good humor were in full display down the stretch. On No. 13, she doubled over in laughter as she fanned her approach shot wide of the target, almost as if she knew what was to come – a made 20-footer for birdie.
On No. 14, she got a break when she clipped a tree and landed in the right rough. She took advantage of her good fortune when she hit a pure semi-punch to 7 feet for yet another birdie.
Meantime, Henderson, who rolled in putts from the adjacent county on Nos. 11 and 17 in the final round at Sahalee last year to win, made her third birdie of the day with a 35-footer on No. 7 but didn’t make another until hitting from 20 feet on No. 17.
Henderson played her own version of bomb and gouge golf, blowing driver over the many strategically place fairway bunkers and gouging short irons out of the rough if she missed the fairway, which she did eight times on Sunday. On many occasions, as Henderson muscled the ball out of the rough she ended up in a one-handed follow through.
“To make that putt on 17 was huge,” Henderson said about the birdie that kept her hopes alive. “I hit two great shot on 18, “ she said of her drive and 236 yard 3-wood to the green. “I walked that putt twice to get the pace,” she said about her 30-foot eagle attempt, “but I left it an inch short.”
She made clear, however, the right person won in this day.
“Danielle played great,” Henderson said. “She won this I was just trying to get close and maybe force a playoff.”
Kang, 24, is a sixth-year pro out of Pepperdine with a dazzling amateur career. She qualified for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open as a 14 year old, won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 2010 and 2011 as well as capturing the prestigious North and South Championship in 2011. But she was winless on the LPGA and her best finish in an LPGA major was T-14 in the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open. Now, it seems, the door may be open to bigger things.
There were many times she could have packed it in: After that putt on No. 10; when she clipped the tree on No. 14; when he bogeyed No. 17 to fall into a tie with Henderson.
But on this day, she met every challenge. And they way she smiled her way through it, the way she grinded her way through it, certainly left you with the feeling that there is more to come. The door, it seems, is now open and here comes Danielle Kang.