Q-and-A: The pros, and prose, of the two-time reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur golf champ going pro

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(Steven Gibbons/USGA)
Danielle Kang and her father/caddie, K.S. Kang, teammed up to win the last two U.S. Women’s Amateur titles.

Danielle Kang took the last major step from amateur to professional golf on the same day Keegan Bradley introduced himself as a major player to the golf world by winning the PGA Championship last Sunday.

Maybe you missed it.

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By winning her second straight U.S. Women’s Amateur title, the Westlake Village resident who recently left Pepperdine pulled off something of a remarkable comeback herself.

Kang was tied for 27th place, at 2-over par, during the stroke play portion of the event at the Rhode Island Country Club, and a persistent upper back problem was really affecting her match play after a quarterfinal win.

After some 45-minute readjustment on her ribs and rotator cuff, Kang recovered to advance through Saturday’s semifinals and then win the 36-hole final with an impressive 6 and 5 performance over Thailand’s Moriya Jutanugard.

Enough people must have seen it on the Golf Channel: Kang said she got 75 text messages, 40 voicemails and 78 friend requests on Facebook before she even went to her post-match press conference.

“I don’t accept the person if I don’t have a mutual friend, really,” she admitted. “My brother always yells at me if I accept somebody. I learned.”

As she drove down to Carlsbad this afternoon with her brother, Alex, who plays for San Diego State’s golf team and last week was competing at the Western Amateur, the 18-year-old Danielle reflected on where she’s been and where she goes from here:

Q: Did you feel as if your title came a bit under the radar with so much more attention on the PGA Championship in Atlanta?

A: I know. That’s all right. They’ll notice it later.

Q: What kind of situation did you face physically over the weekend? Did you worry that you might not be healthy enough to even finish, let alone be strong enough to repeat?

A: I’ve had a spinal spasm that hasn’t fully healed – it’s a long-term injury – and I had so much pain in my upper back and ribs that I couldn’t breathe sometimes. (Chiropractor Dr. Ellen McNally) readjusted my ribs and shoulder blades. They were digging into my back. That really released the tension.

Q: How do your plans lay out now for turning pro? There was some mention of maybe playing in the Canadian Women’s Open in Quebec starting next week.

A: Right now I need rest for my back. I haven’t had much time to relax in months. I’m in the process of contacting agents and talking with companies that could represent me, but my priorities are really with Q-school (starting next month). So, from there, whatever happens, happens. Then I can settle down and talk about maybe playing in some exemptions.

Q: The career of Michelle Wie might be a cautionary tale about having a lot of publicity early and having a tough time living up to expectations — no matter when she does win. Is there a way to look at her career so far and look at how she has done things with handling marketing, media, exposure, things like that?

A: Um, I mean, Michelle is really a different person. She’s a great player, no matter how she markets herself. I don’t know about the expectations. I think everyone expects more from everyone else. Everyone wants more. That’s just how life is. I’m not sure how to explain it. No matter what, you’re pushing yourself to get better. I think Michelle has represented herself well in the media. She’s an awesome player. But she really is different.

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Q: You’ve played in all four majors this year – 49th at the Women’s British Open to become the low amateur, tied for 50th at the LPGA Championship. How do those experiences translate to playing in the amateur championships, where so much is based on match play?

A: I looked at them all the same. With my personality, match play is more suited for me. I like to attack things. You more aggressive you can be in match play, you do well. But in every major, there’s every shot that counts, and you can be aggressive there, too. Every one of them is a learning experience.

Q: Having your dad as your caddy in these major events, what was the dymanics of that like? Was it more than having something of a comfort situation — he could really help you with club selection and reading greens? Or confirming your decisions? And then moving forward, how do you go about picking a caddy?

A: Mostly what my dad does it keep me comfortable. He’s there for me no matter what happens. I always say that the only guy you can ever trust in life is your dad. On the course, he just gets yardages for me. For instance I say, “148, right?” Then he goes, “Right.” When I’m selecting a caddy for tour, I want someone that could be my friend. Golf is not all about seriousness or being uptight … I like to have fun on the course. I play it cause I love the game.

Q: You had a unique learning experience attending Pepperdine. But you’re not at the university any more after three semesters. It didn’t end on such good terms – academically ineligible right before the team started in the NCAA tournament last spring. How would you describe all that experience?

A: Well, I did graduate (six months) early from high school (Westlake) and I think I’d be pretty young for someone going into my third full year of college (turning 19 in October). I think I got enough experience that I wanted to get in those two years, and I don’t think there are many my age who can say that.

I did learn a lot of things. I do want to get a degree someday (she was studying pre-law and business) and I’ll probably go back some day, but I’m not sure if it’ll be at Pepperdine.

There are some things that happened that I can’t say or mention. But things happen and you move on. I come from a family that’s very highly educated (her mother is a doctor and licensed acupuncturist and her father is in the communications business) and, you know, it’s complicated. School isn’t a problem for me. It’s just that no average student can skip grades easily.

Q: You’re only going to be a teenager one more year – what kind of things do you think you’re missing that other regular kids your age do? Or do you really miss it?

A: You know, you start playing ball at an early age, and any athlete who does that has to give up a lot. I missed a lot of things when I was much younger that I don’t regret. I still get to do everything I want. Maybe I missed a school graduation, or a prom, but I there’s always bigger and better things.

Q: Are you aware of how many LPGA players are there already with the last name of Kang – Soo-Yun Kang, Haeji Kang, Jimin Kang? I’m thinking you might get lost in the mix, or at least people may confuse you with them?

A: That’s rare. Maybe it’s not as common as the others, but still out there.

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Q: Tell me about your relationship with Wayne and Janet Gretzky and them helping you get a membership at Sherwood Country Club. How did that all start?

A: Their son (Ty) became friends with my brother — they’re the same age, played a lot of high school golf together — and he’s been like my older brother, too. And the Gretzkys are now like my second parents. They’ve really helped me a lot and took care of me. Without them, I really wouldn’t be able to play. They let me practice (at Sherwood) before I came to the Amateur, because I didn’t have anywhere to practice. Janet called me right after I was done. She was like, “Oh, my God.” I think she was crying..

Q: And you’ve become golf buddies with Marcus Allen and Eric Dickerson?

A: We play together sometimes at Wood Ranch (in Simi Valley). Eric has become a good friend and Marcus has been close. He’s always giving me calls and texts before I tee off. He’s pushing me all the time to play better. If I shoot a 69, he says I could have had a 65. If I shoot a 65, he says next time shoot 60. So what are you going to do?

Q: There was this quote I found, you talking to the USGA about turning pro: “Everytime an amateur decides to turn pro, they always think, am I ready? That’s what they ask themselves. Now I know I am and I have to go to the next level.” Was there one or two things that happened, something that clicked, that made your decision easier and confirmed you were ready, physically and mentally, to take that next step?

A: I’m always ready for a challenge and am not scared to go for it. I just know that I’m ready and I want to be on tour and compete. I’m ready for the next level. You gotta dream big and go for it.

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More on Danielle Kang:

Birthdate: Oct. 20, 1992, in San Francisco
High school: Attended Oak Park for two years, graduated early from Westlake (2010). Once shot a 10-under 57 at the Marmonte League tournament at the Westlake Golf Course to break the women’s course record by four strokes.
College: Attended Pepperdine (2010-2011). Golfweek All-American second team both of her seasons at Pepperdine. She ranked No. 14 nationally in the final Golfweek/Sagarin index following the 2010-11 season. Her sophomore-year scoring average of 72.42 ranks second on Pepperdine’s single-season records list. A career stroke average of 72.81 in 13 tournaments and 37 rounds with the Waves. Declared academically ineligible and missed the Waves’ postseason in 2011.
Amateur highlights: Won the 2010 U.S. Women’s Amateur in North Carolina with a 2 and 1 victory over Jessica Korda of Bradenton, Fla.

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