Now, this is what we were missing. Sure, the roars of the gallery were socially distanced, but that soothing sound of a well-struck golf shot was welcome music to the ears of fans glued to the broadcast. The LPGA returned with the Drive On Championship and in Danielle Kang the Inverness Club produced an extremely fitting winner.
Both the LPGA and Kang picked up right where they left off. With her fourth win – one in each of the last four years – the 27-year-old Kang continued a hot streak that began right after the Solheim Cup in September, when she took the 1-point loss by the U.S. to Europe personally.
Since then, Kang has won twice – she grabbed the Buick Shanghai for the second time in October – has been second once and third on two other occasions. All that moved the 2017 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship winner to No. 4 in the Rolex Rankings.
In what was either a reprise of the 2019 Solheim Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland or a preview of 2021 – which will be played at the Inverness Club – Kang and Celine Boutier of France staged a classic back-nine battle.
Kang led by three strokes with seven holes to play, but a birdie by Boutier on 12, a bogey by Kang on 13 and another birdie by Boutier on 14 tied their head-to-head match with four holes to play.
Danielle got the lead back when Celine missed the 15th green and couldn’t make up-and-down to save par then watched on the final green as Boutier’s 5-foot birdie putt that would have forced a playoff curled just low of the hole.
“I worked really hard for the last seven months,” Kang said about how she used the COVID-19 break to practice in Las Vegas with her coach, Butch Harmon. “You have to respect the golf course,” she said about the demands of Inverness Club.
For the LPGA, the Drive On Championship demonstrated the can-do attitude that’s been a cornerstone of the Tour since it was founded in 1950. It was also the beginning of the Toledo two-step, with the Marathon Classic Presented by Dana this week just down the road at Highland Meadows Golf Club in Sylvania, Ohio.
The Drive On Championship was not on the schedule when the season began, but after nearly six months of inactivity because of COVID-19, the Tour got together with some corporate partners whose events were shelved by the virus and, with the cooperation of Inverness, put together a first-class event in just a matter of weeks.
That was an incredible effort. And fans who watched on Golf Channel or the streaming coverage saw a classic golf course and a scintillating two-woman showdown.
Kang, who won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 2010 and ’11, needed 137 starts to get her first LPGA victory. But since her breakthrough at the 2017 KPMG Championship she’s been a regular visitor to the winner’s circle and has been especially tough since the Solheim Cup.
She was 3-1-0 in 2017 as the USA won the Cup in Des Moines but was only 1-3-0 at Gleneagles, including a 1-down loss to Carlota Ciganda in singles as Europe stormed from behind to take the Cup 14½ to 13½.
“We got a kick in the butt and that just kind of put us into gear,” Kang said about her revitalized play since the loss.
While Kang used her COVID-19 downtime well, working hard with Harmon, the one thing you can’t practice is pressure. The only place to get your game legs is on the golf course, hitting shots when it matters. While those legs wobbled at times they never bowed.
After Boutier pulled even, Kang did what she does best – hit fairways, hit greens and make putts – to win the first tournament after the longest break in the 70-year history of the LPGA.
Asked if she was looking forward to returning to Inverness for the Solheim Cup, Kang could not contain her excitement for a restarted 2020 that is going to slingshot right into 2021.
“I don't know how the golf course is going to play next year, but it's definitely one of my goals to play in the 2021 Solheim Cup,” said Kang, who currently tops the U.S. points list.
“[The UL] International Crown got moved to 2021 as well, along with the Olympics, so it's going to be a really busy year next year,” she said.
And it’s going to be really busy the rest of this year. After the Marathon Classic, the Tour goes to Scotland for the Aberdeen Standard Investments Ladies Scottish Open and then the AIG Women’s Open at Royal Troon, the first major of the year.
After the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship presented by P&G comes the second major, the ANA Inspiration Sept. 10-13 at Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
The LPGA is back – and it hit the ground running. So did Danielle Kang. Neither the Tour nor Kang lost their mojo during the break. As for the rest of the season – bring it on.