ROGERS, ARK | After shooting a season-best 64 in the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship presented by P&G, Danielle Kang lost on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff with Atthaya Thitikul. But when she walked off the course, Kang wasn’t upset. Instead, she cried tears of joy and felt nothing but gratitude.
“I'm just so happy for my team that somehow got me back playing this year,” Kang told the Golf Channel. “There was part of me that I didn't think I would ever play again or contend, but here I am. I'm not that far off and I'm happy about that.”
The Walmart NW Arkansas Championship was just her third event since June, when she stepped away from the tour to undergo treatment for what she described as a tumor on her spine. Kang credits her team with getting her back on the range and back in contention.
“I was very private about what I went through and how the treatments were and all that,” Kang said. “If I live through it in my head, I don't know how I got through it other than the fact that people around me helped me get through it.
“I didn't persevere, people around me did. I'm just so thankful for that.”
Having earned her best result since January, when she won the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions and placed second at the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio, it may seem like Kang picked up where she left off. But she hasn’t jumped back into golf seamlessly. She’s lost a lot of speed and fluidity in her swing leading to new physical and mental challenges.
“There are some random shots that come out that I used to not hit, it just really irks me the wrong way,” Kang said on Saturday. “My misses are different, and that's something that I have to get used to and be okay about.”
Since her return, Kang has been working with her team on re-learning her own game. She’s lost her longer 9-iron shots and is struggling with her wedges. She’s also made changes off the tee because -- with less swing and ball speed -- her drives roll and pitch more than they used to.
“I'm just trying to manage the golf game in a little bit different way,” Kang said. “I think figuring out how to play the best that I can play in my new, better improved way is something that I'm looking to do.”
This weekend was a sign that Kang is close to figuring it all out. She went bogey free through all three rounds at Pinnacle Country Club and teed off on her last hole during the final round at minus –15, one stroke out of the lead. A huge crowd roared as she took the lead with a chip-in from the far side of the green for eagle.
“I saw the scoreboard all day today,” Kang said. “I kept telling my caddie that I wanted to finish at 17-under. On the last hole I kind of miss-hit the 5-wood a little bit and we didn't want to be long. As we walked up, I said, ‘Man, I really want to make an eagle. I'll chip that in.’ He was like, ‘You can chip that in easy.’ We chipped it in.”
Just a few moments later, Thitikul birdied the 17th and sent the tournament into a playoff. While Kang didn’t come out with the win, she’s far from discouraged. Now that she knows she’s still a contender, Kang is more than ready more golf.
“I know that it's still a process and it's hard work every day that I want to play,” Kang said. “Obviously, nothing is ever easy and I understand that. But I love putting in that kind of effort and seeing the results. Knowing that I can do it and I have that belief in myself. I have family and friends and my team around me to help me be the best player that I can be. Moving forward is not going to be easy, but it's there, right? That's what I'm happy about.”
While there are almost certainly more ups and downs waiting for Kang, it seems like the best might still be ahead of her.