U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
For Kang, Patience Trumps Preparation May 31, 2018 | Shoal Creek, Ala. By Julie Williams

Danielle Kang had little knowledge of Shoal Creek before Thursday, but she got some tips from a PGA Tour player. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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Danielle Kang has never been a player who comes off as particularly nervous about preparation, results or much of anything, really. The 25-year-old will tell you, though, that it depends on the day.

Kang, the 2010 and ’11 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, has no qualms about answering a phone call in the middle of a press conference, as she did on Wednesday. Given a practice-round washout, she’s perfectly content to sleep until mid-morning, take in a movie, even visit a museum. She seems to have friends in all the right places. This week at the 73rd U.S. Women's Open, it’s Trey Mullinax.

Mullinax, an Alabama graduate who finished tied for ninth in last year’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills, is among the young professional players in Shoal Creek’s “Tour Hopefuls” program. That means he knows this U.S. Women’s Open venue like the back of his hand. He had promised to walk the course with Kang during a practice round, but that changed when he earned a spot in this week’s Memorial Tournament. Mullinax kept his word by placing a long phone call to Kang instead, during which he talked her through every hole. She hung up feeling like she had played it, with a head full of local knowledge.

“I definitely went into some places he told me not to go,” said Kang, who had five birdies in a 3-under-par 69 that left her tied for second after Thursday’s morning wave.

Staying calm and patient this week has been especially important given the uncertainty that subtropical storm Alberto brought to the beginning of the week. Shoal Creek endured heavy rainfall in the three days leading up to the Women’s Open. Some players got in a decent amount of practice, but others got in virtually none. Kang’s take is that you can play a course 20 or 30 times, but that doesn’t guarantee success – especially at a Women’s Open.

“It’s the toughest event of the year,” said Kang, who practiced on the back nine Monday and the front nine Wednesday.

The Women’s Open continues to elude her. In fact, Kang, whose professional career seemed so promising after her pair of Women’s Amateur victories, hasn’t even really contended in this championship. She has only two top-20 finishes (14th, 2012; 17th, 2016) in eight starts.

Still, over the past year, Kang seems to have figured something out. Last season brought six top-10 finishes, a career high since she joined the LPGA Tour in 2012. Her victory in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club was by far the most notable. It’s her only professional victory.

When Kang hoisted that trophy, it amounted to a huge breakthrough in her career. She’s still working to back it up, though. Kang missed the cut in the 2017 Women’s Open and Ricoh Women’s British Open, her next two starts after the Women's PGA.

Until 2017, Kang had never played a season on the LPGA Tour that included more than six made cuts. So not freaking out about lack of practice this week may truly bring the calm that puts Kang back in winning form.

“My attitude coming into this week, approaching the tournament as if it was anything else, is helping quite a bit,” she said.

Kang doesn’t really ever feel like she is more prepared to play a major than any other event. She thinks about preparation for upcoming events every week, often finishing a round – even if it’s 7 p.m. – and heading right back to the practice area or chipping green to do wedge work, putt or just generally fine-tune.

“I did all the work I could possibly do,” Kang said. “I like where I’m at mentally and physically and where my golf game is at. I feel more prepared than ever.”

There are the normal drills that groove a major champion’s game, and then there are the quirky practice sessions that linger long past childhood. Kang can remember spending time as a teenager learning to hit mud-covered balls with her older brother Alex, also a professional golfer.

“He and I were having a match and I was trying to clean it off,” Kang said. “He was like, ‘No, no, no, you have got to learn how to hit mud-balls. It actually gave me a sense of calm.’”

So what’s the secret to salvaging a shot when your golf ball has mud on it, as players occasionally had to do in Round 1 at Shoal Creek?

Kang, with a sly smile, declined to say. She’s not about to give away her competitive edge.

Julie Williams is a Florida-based freelance writer.

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