Last year, when Danielle Kang turned up for the Solheim Cup at Gleneagles – a hotel and golf resort where good etiquette is de rigueur – she said that she had come “to win souls and to make people cry.” She added she expected people to boo her – and that it didn’t worry her if they did.
“Shame on her,” they said in the next day’s Daily Mail.
Yet the Kang who came to Scotland for the 2020 ASI Scottish Open and last week's AIG Women’s Open, set off on the right foot. True, the world No. 2 had just won back-to-back tournaments in the United States, but this time she was radiating goodwill towards all men. “Thanks for making these tournaments happen,” she said to everyone involved. “Scotland has been super welcoming.”
Mickey Walker, the Sky Sports commentator, was the first to dare to suggest that the now 27-year-old Kang had grown up. “I’m so impressed,” said this former Solheim Cup captain during the course of the player’s first round over the Renaissance. “There’s none of the temper tantrums we saw last year.”
There was nothing to change Walker’s opinion, or anyone else’s, throughout a week in which Kang finished just one shot off a four-way play-off.
Plenty of her admirers might have been struck by the notion that if she were to keep going in that vein, she would be capable of delivering on the warning she issued to a startled media corps at the 2018 HSBC Women’s World Championship in Singapore: “I know what I want, when I want it, and where I want it – and I know how I’m going to get it.”
“Wow,” said everyone on the receiving end of that extraordinary little spiel once her back was safely turned. The gist of what she had in mind, incidentally, was entirely in keeping with what Butch Harmon had said that same summer about taking her to No. 1 in the world by 2020.
Fast-forward to the Thursday of the AIG Women's Open at Royal Troon, and the West coast winds that conspired with the scoreboard system to put Kang's newfound patience to the test. When she started with four bogeys and a double bogey to be 6-over par after six holes, the scoreboard read “Kang +3.” That mistake went down badly. Though you would have thought that she would have been eminently approachable after her eagle-birdie-birdie finish, she was miffed that the media had approached her at all. Never mind what the scoreboard said, she thought they should have known that it was wrong.
"She’s a feisty competitor with a solid swing and she’s a truly wonderful putter.”
For the tournament, Kang never challenged the leaders. With a Sunday 67, she was able to rise to T32.
Back in Las Vegas, Nevada, Harmon would have had his fingers crossed when she headed for Scotland. He would have expected the odd hiccup and probably felt that she had done pretty well to keep her cool for as long as she did. He had told her that she would need to accept the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on a Scottish links, with his standout line that she had to learn “to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable.”
If she was not exactly that, she indeed had done better than anticipated.
Harmon apart, Kang has many good friends – including Michelle Wie, Lydia Ko and Stacy Lewis, all of whom must know of her darker moments but like her just the same.
David Leadbetter, who used to coach her, comes into that category. “There is so much to admire in Danielle,” he said. “She was a black belt and a good footballer when she was growing up. She can be good fun and good company. As for her golf, she’s a feisty competitor with a solid swing and she’s a truly wonderful putter.”
He went on to talk about how different she was to Ko, another of his past pupils. Ko had got off to a fast start, becoming the youngest player to be a world No. 1 at age 17. Kang, for her part, had switched to the professional ranks as long ago as 2011 and did not win for a first time until 2017, though that first win was a major.
Where the Leadbetter-Kang teacher-pupil arrangement came unstuck was because of the player’s demands. “There were never any problems when she was playing well but, when she was going through a tough patch, she was needy, very needy,” Leadbetter said. “She had to be cheered up all the time and there were nights when she’d be on the phone for an hour or more.
“Having said that, I’m really glad she’s been playing well, and I admire Butch for the way he’s handling her. There was way too much drama involved for my liking and I didn’t need it at my stage of life.”
In looking back, Leadbetter sometimes wonders if Kang is heralding the start of a new, more aggressive breed of golfer. “Her bark is worse than her bite,” he said. “She just says what she thinks and sometimes it doesn’t come across very well.”
Then it came to him.
“You know who she’s like?” he asked.
He proceeded to name Nick Faldo, the player whose swing he changed to the extent that he went on to win three Masters and three Opens: “Like him, she’s self-centred and, again like him, she’s very driven.”
Just how driven was obvious at Royal Troon, where she was the last player on the practice ground every evening. Presumably someone was waiting back for her. And if they weren’t, we would no doubt have heard about it.