Charlotte, N.C. – For someone who transitioned from high school to college in three days, Danielle Kang is a quick learner.
OK, so what transpired over the last 24 hours at Charlotte Country Club has nothing to do with economics, mathematics or English literature. Maybe some of her psychology class from the spring semester at Pepperdine played a minor role at the 110th U.S. Women’s Amateur.
Kang, a 17-year-old from Thousand Oaks, Calif., who graduated in 3½ years to accelerate a future ascension into the professional game, certainly knows not to make the same mistake twice.
In Friday’s quarterfinals against fellow Southern California Sydnee Michaels, she three-putted the 18th green, missing a sliding 4-foot par putt that could have ended the match.
A similar situation arose in Saturday’s semifinals against 19-year-old Canadian Jennifer Kirby. Thanks to back-to-back birdies at Nos. 16 and 17 by the University of Alabama sophomore, Kang was forced to play the challenging dogleg-right 18th hole again.
Déjà vu definitely entered Kang’s mind, especially when she left herself a 60-foot birdie attempt.
I didn’t want to go at that pin [on the far right-hand portion of the green] and make a mistake and give it to her, said Kang. [The three-putt on Friday] did cross my mind. I told myself yesterday was yesterday. I was pretty confident in my putting today. I just told myself to be confident.
Kang’s lag putt had ideal pace, leaving only 3 feet for par. And when Kirby left her 20-footer for birdie inches short, Kang confidently stepped up and holed the putt for a 1-up win and a spot in Sunday’s 36-hole championship match. She will face fellow 17-year-old Jessica Korda of Bradenton, Fla., a 4-and-3 winner over Stephanie Sherlock.
While the match featured late dramatics, the first 15 holes was more a story of survival than sensational golf. It started at the par-4 first hole when Kirby air-mailed the green from 80 yards with a 58-degree wedge.
Just adrenaline, said Kirby. I don’t think it was nerves. I think I was just trying to press the issue too much.
Kirby had played her previous four matches in the equivalent of eight under par, with the usual match-play concessions. Through 15 holes in Saturday’s semis, she was six over.
Loose shots seemed the order of the day for both golfers. Kirby’s tee shot at the par-5 fifth hole wound up near the medical tent to the right of the fairway, which led to a bogey. But Kang pulled her approach from the fairway left of the green and missed an 11-foot par putt.
In fact, Kang, who had even par through her first four matches, registered only one birdie the entire match, a concession at the par-5 seventh after Kirby misplayed a bunker shot and the subsequent chip from the fringe.
I gave her a few holes and she gave it back, said Kang.
Kirby compounded the average ball-striking – she bogeyed eight by driving into the left rough and made a 4 at the par-3 11th by hitting her tee shot long and left – with missed putts. She misread a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 13, three-putted 14 and added to her frustration with a poor stroke on a 5-foot birdie try at No. 15. That left her 3 down with three to play.
She finally stuffed shots to 3 and 9 feet, respectively, at Nos. 16 and 17 for birdies to extend the match.
I just wanted to get it to 18 because I knew she had bogeyed it yesterday and went to extra holes, said Kirby. But she made par and I couldn’t do much better.
While Kang said she came to the Women’s Amateur without high expectations, her summer results certainly pointed to a deep run. She was the stroke-play medalist last month at the U.S. Girls’ Junior held a few hours away at The Country Club of North Carolina. Eventual champion Doris Chen eliminated her in the quarterfinals, 1 up.
Then she went to the Canadian Women’s Amateur and finished second to Michaels by two strokes.
But the genesis for the confidence might have come in early July at the U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont Country Club, where the gregarious and engaging Kang was one of six amateurs to make the cut. Oakmont required plenty of patience, an intangible Kang said she lacked at the Women’s Open.
So Kang vowed to have more fun at competitions.
I play golf because I love it, she said, not because of stress. I don’t put a limit or expectations [on myself] anymore. I just go play.
This week, Kang has enjoyed her time off the course with her host family and their two daughters. They have watched movies and played board games. Her father, K.S. Kang, who works in Korea in the telecommunications business, has spent the summer serving as her caddie, outside of the Girls’ Junior where parents can’t do so. The two share a common love for the game. Danielle appreciates his course-management and skills, even though she jokingly said K.S. no longer has the game to keep up with her.
Danielle’s mom is back home in Southern California and her 20-year-old brother – Alex plays at San Diego State – is preparing for the Scratch Players in Washington.
Kang also has no regrets for leaving high school early for Pepperdine. She was OK with missing the senior prom and regular graduation ceremonies.
But she did have only three days to get ready for the demands of college life, officially graduating on Jan. 8 and enrolling at Pepperdine on Jan. 11.
It felt like camp without singing, she said of the first day on the Malibu campus. You see people moving in with their bags. Where am I, summer camp? It’s not a big school. I did my own golf like I usually do. So I tried to get used to it.
Then classes began and suddenly it didn’t feel like a vacation anymore.
I had 12 books this [past semester], she said. I took 16 credits. I had econ, religion, psychology, freshman seminar and champs, an athletic class.
Kang still has a few weeks before loading up her backpack and starting the fall semester.
But on Sunday she’ll face the toughest golf exam of her young career.
David Shefter is a USGA communications staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at email@example.com.