ORLANDO, FLORIDA | In all the hoopla and drama of a final round that saw four lead changes and a handful of notable names within striking distance for much of the afternoon, the pitch shot that Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions winner Danielle Kang hit on the par-5 15th might have gone unnoticed.
Might have. Unless you are of a certain age. Then it brought a little moisture to your eyes and a flutter in the chest.
It was, as the kids say, “old school,” the kind of thing that the analytics experts – the people who study computer algorithms and predictive models, but who have never won anything north of second low net in their club championship - tell you is a thing of the past. But those with some gray up top and a little pudge down below; those who know how to check the bulge and roll on a persimmon driver and remember how easy it was to cut a balata golf ball, those folks recognize the artistry of the shot Kang hit, and the importance of never letting it die.
First the setup: leading by two shots after consecutive birdies at 13 and 14, Kang, who by her own admission is not as long as Gaby Lopez, Nelly Korda or Brooke Henderson, hit her second shot safely to the right of the green in two on 15. The green is elevated like an upside-down pie pan, and Kang’s ball was in a closely mown area, exactly the kind of lie that gives amateurs fits. The players chasing her could reach that green in two. Birdies had to be assumed. Eagles were a possibility. It was important for Kang to get the ball up and down to hold or stretch the lead before the three tough closing holes.
At first, Kang took out what appeared to be a lob wedge. That’s the club the “Strokes Gained” people would clack on their laptops and tell you had the best chance of success. But anyone who has been in that situation knows that you can easily dig the leading edge too far under that shot, or thin it a little and miss the green.
Kang took a couple of practice swings with the lofted wedge, then went back to her bag and grabbed something with a straighter face, in this case, a pitching wedge. She got closer to the ball, standing the shaft more upright so that the heel was off the ground.
Then she played the ball back in her stance and hit a beautiful bump-and-run chip off the toe of the club. The ball landed a few inches on the putting surface and then trundled like a putt to within two feet of the hole. A minute later, she made the birdie to extend the lead to three shots, which was her ultimate margin of victory.
Kang smiled afterward when asked about the shot. “I’ve been working a lot on bump-and-runs,” she said before thanking her coach, Butch Harmon, and making a joke about old-timers. “Butch makes me practice a lot of bump-and-runs.
“I chipped with a 46-degree there (on 15) instead of trying to hit a 50 or a 54 because it's more like a putt. As long as I’ve got the green speed down, which I have, I saw how the ball was going to roll and react to the green. I wanted that topspin. So, I just hit it as close (to the edge of) the green as possible and let it tumble. I stand the shaft up, put the ball back, set the toe down, and I just hit it aggressively through the ball. It comes off like a putt.
“You just can't be afraid of it, right? If you hesitate it's going to duff or chunk or going to catch a little bit too much toe spin. But as long as you're aggressive, it's always going come out with the nice topspin that you can create with your putter.”
Bobby Jones said that the key to good chipping and pitching was to get the ball on the ground and rolling as quickly as possible. He often chipped with a mashie niblick (the 1930 equivalent of a 7-iron) and implored all the people he helped to do likewise.
“You can make a good living standing the shaft up and hitting those short shots on the toe,” Paul Azinger says with an evangelical zeal. “Stand the shaft up and hit those shots like a putt. The toe deadens it, so the ball comes out the same way every time.
“I’ve been practicing that a lot,” Kang said. “I actually use that shot quite often. It's the easiest shot in golf, to be honest. You’ve just got to tumble it and it'll go to the hole as long as you read the speed and the line right. That's my go-to when things are the most pressured or I have to hit a good shot.
“I'm trying to widen my arsenal and my tools, trying to be able to chip with 8-irons and 9-irons. I hit couple 9-iron shots around the greens, 46 degrees. It's actually going with what I feel more so than what I think is right.
“I’ve learned that there is really not a correct way to play golf. The better that I am with more clubs, I have more probability of making par saves. That's what I've tried to widen this off-season.”
It’s an old lesson made new again – one that more players would be well-served to learn.