Charlotte, N.C. – K.S. Kang was a bundle of energy when the alarm clock went off at 6 a.m. Sunday.
There was a good reason for his excitement.
His 17-year-old daughter, Danielle, was about to play the biggest golf match of her fledgling career, the scheduled 36-hole final for the 110th U.S. Women’s Amateur against 2010 USA Curtis Cup Team member Jessica Korda.
The previous evening, the two Kangs dined on local Korean fare with their host family and enjoyed some frozen yogurt at one of Charlotte’s favorite sweet shops, Pinkberry.
Nothing too special.
In a position where nerves, anxiety and even some trepidation might enter the psyche, the teen from Southern California played it like a surfer at Zuma Beach.
In fact, Charles Campbell, whose family hosted the Kangs since they arrived on Aug. 6, said Danielle’s mood never changed all week. Evenings were spent dining, watching movies on the television or playing board games like Bugopoly with the couple’s children, 9-year-old Adele and 7-year-old Mary Thorn.
So why would the night before a championship match change anything?
It amazes me, said Campell of her calmness. She just has a bubbly personality and is as relaxed as can be. Danielle has been like a rock star.
Nobody will confuse Kang for teen sensations Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber, but her 2-and-1 victory over Korda on Sunday made her an American Idol for the nearly 500 spectators who endured another hot and muggy day at Charlotte Country Club.
She smiled. She laughed. She looked like someone thoroughly enjoying the moment. Sure she was playing for the biggest prize in women’s amateur golf, but to her, it was just another day on the golf course.
Whatever kinetic energy dad/caddie had at dawn, Danielle managed to absorb it, promptly birdieing four of the first eight holes for a 2-up advantage.
Yeah, he just brought my energy up, said Danielle of her father. I made it to the finals, so no matter what happens [on Sunday], I came all the way here. I’m just going to have fun like I did the last few days.
Only once did Kang admit to panicking. That came when Korda took her first lead of the match with a conceded birdie at the par-5 30th hole. But if Danielle was worried on the inside, she never showed any emotional outbursts.
The frustration, instead, belonged to her talented opponent, who came into the match the equivalent of 14 under par (with match-play concessions) over the previous five matches. While Korda was exceptional from tee to green – she missed only one fairway and four greens in 35 holes – her putter was in the deep freeze. The incredulous looks on the greens told the story.
The only putt I made all day was on the third hole in the morning, said Korda of the 15-foot birdie that briefly squared the match. My putter was kind of … I don’t know what the heck was wrong with it today. I had the line. I had the speed. I don’t even know. I’m going to watch it on Golf Channel [broadcast] and just see.
Kang, meanwhile, had chatted with her putting coach, Tony Kewal, back in Southern California by phone on Saturday. He noticed Kang was hurrying through her routine and told her to slow down. It seemed to help, especially when Kang dropped a 30-footer for birdie at the 28th hole with Korda facing a 10-footer, which she made.
If you noticed today, I was a little slow, said Kang. I felt bad, but not too bad. I slowed everything one tempo down. But the second round I started getting a little faster, and I realized when she was 1 up, it kind of hit me when [USGA president and referee for the match Jim Hyler] announced it. So I slowed everything down again.
Kang responded with a 5-foot birdie at the 32nd hole and took the lead for good when Korda missed her only green of the afternoon round at the par-4 34th hole. Then, at the par-3 35th, Kang stuffed her 8-iron tee shot to 4 feet for a championship-clinching birdie.
Hugs with dad were followed by group photos with her host family after USGA Women’s Committee Chairman Barbara Douglas handed Kang the Robert Cox Trophy. Tears of joy were flowing.
I even told myself I don't understand why people cry when they win stuff, but now I do, said Kang. You're just so happy that you did it.
One piece of advice that Petr Korda gave to his daughter prior to the championship match was to get proper rest. Petr should know since he played professional tennis and won a Grand Slam event, the 1998 Australian Open. But Korda lost his share of big matches as well.
Jessica said the one big intangible she’ll take from this heartbreaking defeat was to not stress so much.
Even though she had competed in huge international events like the Curtis Cup (2010), Copa de las Americas (2010) and Women’s World Amateur Team Championship (2006), this was her first USGA final.
I played really well [this week]. I just need to learn how to relax under pressure, said Jessica. "It’s not like stroke play where you have the lead or anything. It’s just you have to play hole by hole. You make a birdie and your opponent makes a bogey, and you get two shots, no it’s just one.
Finding Her Game
It might be hard to believe, but Danielle Kang kind of stumbled into the game. K.S. didn’t want his two children – Danielle’s brother Alex is two years older – hanging around at the office during a summer in Korea, so he sent them to the driving range next door to keep them occupied.
Alex immediately enjoyed hitting balls, but Danielle didn’t see the value.
Why would you play golf? said Danielle, recounting the story. It’s so annoying. Then my brother started getting good, because we were there for three months. After like two months my brother’s getting the hang of it. He’s hitting the ball down the middle and everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God, look at that kid hit the ball. It’s so far because he hits it really hard.’
And everybody comes to me and [says] … look at your brother. I got really annoyed. That is the only reason I picked up golf. I got upset and said stop saying my brother’s so good, so I picked up the club and started swinging.
When the family came back to the States, Danielle started taking lessons and soon became competitive because of her brother, who currently plays for San Diego State.
Danielle, a sophomore at Pepperdine, appears to have made a good choice.
Charles Campbell wanted to host a player for the Women’s Amateur because he thought it would be fun for his two young daughters. The owner of an insurance consulting business, Campbell also had signed up to be a volunteer.
I didn’t know what to expect, said Campbell, who lives adjacent to Charlotte C.C., where he joined just in the past year. I thought it would be great exposure to be around this level of golf. By the luck of the draw, we got Danielle [and her father].
This was great. I can’t believe it’s been 10 days. It was like having two friends here.
Odds And Ends
Believe it or not, when Kang qualified for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles, she admitted to not knowing it was a major championship. I thought it was just a tournament my brother signed me up for, she said. … Korda plans to petition the LPGA Tour to let her enter LPGA Tour Qualifying School as an amateur this fall. When asked if the pressure of this week will help for that competition, she said, It’s definitely going to help boost my confidence maybe in a week. … By winning the Women’s Amateur, Kang is exempt into next year’s U.S. Women’s Open (if she’s still an amateur), the next 10 U.S. Women’s Amateurs and the next 10 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links. Kang said her family just left the private Wood Ranch Country Club in Simi Valley, Calif., and she now plays at public courses, which would make her eligible to play next year’s WAPL at Bandon Dunes … Kang said she often hits balls at Sherwood C.C. as a guest of Wayne and Janet Gretzky. Danielle’s brother, Alex, introduced Danielle to Janet and the two have become friends. They’re really nice, said Danielle. Golf Channel asked me who my favorite athlete was outside of golf, and I said Wayne Gretzky, and Janet says, ‘Why didn’t you say Janet Gretzky?’ I was like, ‘Janet, I can’t even say your name. You don’t play hockey.’
David Shefter is a USGA communications staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at email@example.com.