By Dave Kaplan
Even though American Kyle Stanley took home his second career victory by defeating Charles Howell III in a playoff at the Quicken Loans National, it was, in reality, a bit of a slow and uneventful week on the PGA Tour.
On the women’s side, however, there was plenty of drama and excitement as a new star emerged at Olympia Fields to win the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
After 143 career starts on the LPGA Tour without a win, two-time US Women’s Amateur champion American Danielle Kang finally broke through and claimed her first victory as a pro on one of the biggest stages in the sport! The 24-year-old played some spectacular golf all week, remaining bogey-free through her first 38 holes of the tournament and firing off rounds of 69, 66, 68, and 68 to finish the event at 13-under par. However, it was the veteran-like resilience that the first-time winner displayed on Sunday in holding off Canada’s very own superstar, Brooke Henderson, that really made the victory stand out.
Kang struggled to get anything going on the front nine in her final round, offsetting a bogey on the 2nd with a birdie on the 3rd to make the turn at even par. She then missed an easy three-foot putt for par on the 10th and fell out of a three-way tie for the lead with Henderson and South Korea’s Chella Choi. That putt could have easily derailed the San Francisco native, who had never finished better than a tie for 14th at a major in her career. Instead, the bogey only appeared to motivate her. Kang responded with four straight birdies on the following four holes to take a commanding three-shot lead on the Canadian.
Henderson, who grinded out an incredible bogey-free 66 in her final round despite finding only six fairways on the day, mounted a considerable charge down the stretch to make things extremely tough for the American. After making nine consecutive pars in the middle of her round, the Smiths Falls, Ont. native birdied her final two holes to tie Kang atop the leaderboard at 12-under. Henderson, who won the event in a playoff last year, nearly took a one-shot lead on the final hole, a 472-yard par 5, with a valiant attempt at eagle. After striking a 3-wood from 232 yards to approximately 30 feet, the 19-year-old sent what looked to be a perfect putt tracking directly at the cup. Unfortunately, her ball stopped an eyelash short of the hole, opening the door for Kang to make a birdie to win her first tournament.
Kang played the final hole perfectly, splitting the fairway with her drive and then finding the green with her second shot. She then two-putted to victory with the confidence of a veteran who has been in that situation before.
It was the first time that a winner had birdied the final hole of the event to win since Meg Mallon did it in 1991 — the year before Kang was born.
After the putt, Kang embraced her caddy and mother, and then turned around to see her close friend, Michelle Wie, running towards her with outstretched arms.
Clearly, the two are BFFs:
Kang, who is a member of the exclusive Sherwood Country Club in Santa Monica —known as much for its Jack Nicklaus design as it is for its big name celebrity members — received support all week long from many of her regular, A-List playing partners.
Caitlyn Jenner called Kang on Friday night to impart some advice and Wayne Gretzky texted her “just go win it” on Saturday morning. Even Dustin Johnson, who, too, plays out of Sherwood during his spare time, messaged her after the win.
For years, Kang has been touted as one of the next great American female golfers. She qualified for the US Women’s Open in 2007 at the age of 14, won two US Women’s Amateurs in 2010 and 2011, and played in all four majors as an amateur in 2010! At the LPGA Championship that year, Kang was the only amateur who advanced to the weekend. At the Women’s British Open, she took home low amateur honours.
After turning professional in 2011, Kang worked her way up to the big leagues on the Futures Tour (now known as the Symetra Tour), before earning conditional and then eventually full-time status on the LPGA Tour.
Kang struggled to take her game to the next level in her first five years as a pro and was sidelined by a series of injuries last year, ranging from eye surgery to a wrist fracture and bulging discs in her back. However, Kang’s fortune, resumé and career trajectory all changed drastically with her gritty performance last week.
Obviously, Kang was the big winner on Sunday, taking home a cheque for $525,000 and an automatic exemption into the year-end CME Group Tour Championship. However, the second biggest winner on the day had to be the LPGA Tour, which now has another young and marketable hard-hitting American star at its disposal, alongside Lexi Thompson and Jessica Korda, to help promote and grow the game down south.
Kang is extremely marketable. She has an extremely bubby personality, and even smiles in the face of adversity. Plus, as we learned this past weekend, she apparently plays golf with nearly every celebrity in Hollywood.
Yes, it would have been nice to celebrate Canada Day weekend with a Canadian victory, especially since no Canucks were in contention at the Quicken Loans National. However, Henderson still delivered a tenacious performance for all of her fans and lost with the type of humility and class that we, as Canadians, pride ourselves upon. Plus, we now very possibly have the early makings of what I am hoping will be a healthy Canada/USA golf rivalry between Henderson and Kang for years to come.
The ladies still have three more majors to play this year, including the US Women’s Open in two weeks at Trump National Bedminster! At this point, I don’t think it’s a stretch to predict that Henderson will be in the running. Brooke has now amassed a total of seven Top-10 major finishes in her young career, including four over her last seven attempts, and looks like a strong bet to become the first Canadian champion ever in US Women’s Open history.
If she pulls it off, Henderson will also become the first Canadian golfer — male or female — to ever win a second major title.
That’s an impressive accomplishment for a player of any age — let alone a teenager!
Dave Kaplan is a Toronto-based freelance writer and golf fanatic who is sneaky long off the tee. He’s on a crusade to inject a youthful perspective into golf media, especially the broadcast booth. Follow him on Twitter @davykap