As Danielle Kang rattled off four straight birdies on the back nine Sunday at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the crowds began to swell. She lost sight of her mother, Grace Lee, who had been following her all week at Olympia Fields just outside downtown Chicago. Danielle kept a watchful eye on the crowd. Soon, the rainbow colored umbrella her mother carried to shield herself from the summer sun began to bob in and out of view.
“She only comes for the important ones like Hawaii, Bahamas, France,” said Danielle laughing. “But she actually wanted to come to Chicago.”
As Grace Lee watched from under that rainbow umbrella, Danielle stood over a birdie putt on the 72nd hole. If she made it, she would win for the first time on Tour. At the biggest moment of her professional career, she felt calm. Danielle could sense her father’s presence. She couldn’t see him, but she could feel him.
“I knew he was there watching,” Danielle said.
At that very moment, she remembered her dad, K.S., who caddied for her when she won the first of back-to-back U.S. Women’s Amateur titles in 2010. He died of brain cancer just three years later.
“I felt so calm over that final putt and I felt so confident the whole week,” Danielle said. “I think it was a confidence I felt from him that you can do it and just believe in myself.”
With her parents looking on, Danielle rolled in a three-footer to become a first-time major champion. It was her 144th start on the LPGA Tour.
As she hugged her mom on the 18th green, all the emotions came flooding out. The Kangs are a close-knit family, and Danielle shared everything with her parents, especially her mom. If there was anyone who could understand all she had suffered in losing her father and waiting six years to win on Tour, it was mom.
“She got very emotional because it meant a lot to her,” said Danielle, whose mother wasn’t on hand to see her daughter win either of her titles at the U.S. Women’s Amateur. “All the struggles, the hardship and everything that our family has been through. And then, to come out on top, it was very emotional for her.”
Alex, Danielle’s brother, helps fill the void left by their father. He’s two years older than his sister, and plays on the Web.com Tour. He was at an event and couldn’t be with Danielle at Olympia Fields. When she spoke to Alex on the phone after her win, he responded just as her father would have. It took just two words.
“’Good job,’” he told her. “I could hear the proudness.”
Not a day goes by that Danielle doesn’t talk with her family. She and Alex take turns calling each other. No topic is off limits or too mundane.
“What are you doing?” “What should I eat?” “What’s your tee time?” Those are the questions that start their daily calls. But, they also hold a deeper purpose. Alex is the one who holds Danielle accountable with her game. He challenges her to work harder and practice more. He also alleviates her fears and insecurities. She returns the favor, in her own way.
“I called him yesterday and was like, ‘What is up with the triple [bogey], man? Where does that come from?’ He’s like, ‘Dude, I airmailed the green.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t want to hear you airmailed the green.’ If I have a tough day, I call him. If he’s mad, he calls me about his round. It’s good to have somebody to talk to.”
He also played a critical role in her victory at Olympia Fields.
That week, Danielle was struggling to map out the golf course. But Alex had played Olympia Fields before and his experience proved to be crucial to her win. During practice rounds, Danielle took pictures of the golf course and sent them to Alex to talk strategy.
“He planned out the golf course for me. ‘You’re going to hit driver here, you’re going to make sure to lay up here.’ I just stuck to that the next four days and I won.”
Alex knew how tough the last four years had been for their entire family, especially Danielle. The burden of not winning and the feeling she wasn’t fulfilling the promise she had shown as an amateur, weighed heavily on Danielle. The disappointment of not being able to spend more time with her father when he was battling cancer and the pressure of not being able to win before he passed, weighed her down even more.
“I wanted to keep playing because it motivated him,” Danielle recalled. “When he woke up he checked my score. I didn’t play for me.”
After her father died, she didn’t want to play at all.
“I hated golf after my dad wasn’t around,” said Danielle, who admitted feeling that way for years after his death. “I didn’t like being out here. I know that’s very, I don’t want to say childish, but its people’s dream to be out here. But emotionally I didn’t want to be out here.”
Danielle’s grandmother passed away six months after her father. Her uncle died five months after that. It was the support of her mother, Alex and a few close friends who helped her get through the next few years.
“My family and friends kept telling me that I would be ok. Just believe in yourself. It’ll happen. And reassured me everything is ok. I think that’s the most important. Like even if you don’t win, it’s ok.”
But she missed those daily talks with dad.
Danielle started keeping a journal. Everyday she writes a note to her father. She still talks to him when she’s on the golf course, but the journal helps her keep alive their connection. While he wasn’t a man of many words, he was very sentimental and would often write letters to his daughter. His handwriting was used to create a tattoo on her wrist. It spells out the word for father in Korean.
“People told me time heals. It really doesn’t. It teaches you how to handle it better, but it never heals it,” Danielle said. “As time passes, you realize that life has to keep going.”
She worked through the various stages of grief, especially sadness and anger. As time passed, she learned to redirect those energies towards her game. Alex made sure she did.
“‘You need to work hard. You need to work harder and be more consistent,’” Alex would tell her. “And so that’s what I did.”
Danielle was determined to put more effort into her career. She stepped up her sessions with instructor David Leadbetter. She wanted to know that if she never won, she would be able to walk away knowing she gave it all she had. Mom was there for support.
“Mom always tells me everything’s ok. If I miss a putt, it’s ok. If I don’t win, it’s ok. If I win, it’s ok. Nothing changes. That was a huge thing and 2017 was a turning point more so than anything.”
In 2017, she stopped obsessing about winning and won for the first time on Tour.
“It was something that was looming over me for a long time,” said Danielle. “The fact that it was a major made it so much better.”
After her win, she flew to her father’s gravesite in Los Angeles. She brought her caddie bib from the Tournament, a pin flag, golf ball, flowers and a few of his favorite things. Her father was a man of few words, but she knows exactly what he would have said.
“’Good job. Finally,’” Danielle said laughing.