SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — Danielle Kang is not a morning person. The 2017 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship winner really doesn’t like having to wake up early. Lately, though, she has been left with no other choice.
Just over a month ago, Kang was diagnosed with a tumor on her spine, which she revealed after her second round Friday at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club. Kang said that she had been having back pain for a while but that she never expected a tumor to be the problem.
“I don’t want it to come across weird,” Kang told ESPN after her third-round 73 on Saturday. “But I wasn’t scared of the result. I was more scared of not being able to play.”
On Saturday, the 29-year-old teed off at 7:52 a.m., so the wake-up call for her new pre-round routine was even earlier than usual. She and her physiotherapist, Aaron Bond, go through warm-up and pull-down exercises to activate her back. They add kinesio tape in order to “lift the fascia tissue,” and they use cupping therapy. After her round, they do it all over again.
“There’s so much to do for me to get going,” said Kang, who won the 2017 Women’s PGA Championship. “And that’s just to play the U.S. Open.”
Kang is blunt about it: She wasn’t supposed to play last week at the Bank of Hope LPGA Match-Play in Las Vegas. She wasn’t supposed to play this week in the U.S. Open. The former happened because of her relationship with her sponsor — MGM Resorts. The latter happened because, as Kang will tell you, she wasn’t going to miss the U.S. Open, even if she and her team did think about skipping.
“I’ve never missed it. I played here when I was 14, I came here with my dad 15 years ago,” Kang said. “As long as I’m able to roll out there … I didn’t want to miss another major, so I’ve just kept pushing through it. That’s the kind of player I am, but I think we’re at a limit.”
Kang says she doesn’t have many answers about the tumor. Since the diagnosis, there hasn’t been much clarity. The pain, though, is unquestionable. You can see it when she grimaces after a tough approach shot, or when she walks gingerly after a long drive. And you can also see it in her eyes, when she knows all the prep work she does before the round can only help the discomfort so much while also preventing her from working more on her game.
“I didn’t feel very good [Saturday]; I think I’m very fatigued,” Kang said. “So I couldn’t get through the ball. I was hitting it left and right all over the place … didn’t give myself many birdie opportunities.”
Her team and her family have encouraged Kang to not worry about her score, but Kang can’t help it. She was disappointed with how she played Saturday.
“I’m never going to say I’m out there just to try and have fun. I’m a competitor,” she said. “For the last few holes, whether it hurt or not, I just needed to get through the ball. It was causing some kind of discomfort, but I hit some good shots coming through.”
Kang birdied two of her last four holes. On the 17th, she was just off the green and decided to call her shot. The ball caught the slope and trickled in. Kang’s face lit up, she raised her hands, celebrated with her caddie and thanked the crowd, which, as she put it, was a pretty good one for having teed off early. The moment was a salve.
“The rounds have been really rough the last couple of days, and that was just really fun,” Kang said of the chip-in. “I don’t know, there isn’t a lot of confidence in my game right now, so just executing the shot, it made me happy.”
The physical toll is one thing, but Kang has also had to adjust to the mental toll this has taken on her. Seeing the repeated bad shots, she says, gets to her. But she has to remind herself that she’s not losing her skill, that this can be temporary.
“I have to say, ‘I will,'” Kang said. “So I’ve had to tell myself like, no, ‘I will be able to hit punch cuts. I will be able to hit control draws.’ Because I have to tell myself that I’m gonna come back and play like I did before.”
Kang said that she is hoping to just get through Sunday’s final round. Then she will have some more doctor’s appointments to try to get more answers about the tumor, as well as about what her approach to golf should be going forward.
“It’s the unknown that I’m most scared of,” Kang said.
When asked how she processed the news when the tumor was first discovered, she thought for a second before settling on an answer.
“Still processing,” she said.