Road to Tokyo - Danielle Kang
by Christina Lance
When Danielle Kang was a kid, she thought her road to the Olympics was paved through Taekwondo. She earned her second-degree black belt at age 7 and saw the Games in her future.
Then she found the game of golf and that goal moved from the dojo to the course. And 21 years after she earned that belt, Kang will wear the Red, White and Blue for Team USA as one of its four female golfers in Tokyo.
“Ever since I trained Taekwondo to be an Olympian, Olympics have been my dream, it's my goal to be an Olympic athlete,” said Kang. “I know that LPGA have set the stage for us to compete week in and week out with all the sponsors, but with that said, Olympics has been available to us since 2016, and that's something I've wanted to achieve all my life.”
Kang did not pick up the game of golf until she was 13, tagging along with her older brother Alex to golf lessons. But she quickly took to the sport, qualifying for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open at age 14, just one year after she first picked up a club. She captured her first major amateur title at the 2010 U.S. Women’s Amateur and successfully defended the win in 2011, becoming just the 12th player since 1895 to win back-to-back titles.
After spending one season at Pepperdine University, Kang turned professional in 2011 and earned her LPGA Tour card at that year’s Qualifying School. But her amateur achievements did not immediately translate to professional success. She spent six years on Tour without a win, a span of more than 140 starts made all the more difficult by the death of her father, K.S. Kang, in 2013 after a battle with brain cancer.
Kang’s dad often served as her caddie during her amateur and young professional career, and his loss took a hard toll on his young daughter. Following his death, she even had his signature, written in Korean, tattooed on her right hand.
“I have a really great life, and I'm blessed for what I have, but what I was going through mentally, losing my dad, and then not winning, trying to play through it, all of the images in my mind, I couldn't calm it down,” Kang told Golf Digest in 2018. “To find some peace, I needed to talk to somebody. Therapy helped a lot. She told me it was OK, that everything was going to be fine. She helped me with different mechanisms on how to deal with anger.”
Taking that time to focus on her mental health truly transformed Kang’s life and her game. She finally earned her breakthrough win at the 2017 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club, birdieing the 72nd hole and immediately bursting into happy tears, enveloped in the arms of her mother, Dr. Grace Lee. Kang honored and celebrated her dad’s memory by placing her winning caddie bib at his gravestone.
Since that week in Chicago, Kang has become one of the leading players in the women’s game. She captured back-to-back titles at the 2018 and 2019 Buick LPGA Shanghai, and when the Tour returned to play following the 2010 pandemic-related shutdown, she won consecutive titles at the LPGA Drive On Championship at Inverness Club and the Marathon LPGA Classic.
Throughout all the ups and downs, the famed Olympic rings have always been an icon of inspiration for Kang.
“When the Olympics qualification got extended extra 15 months, I cried and panicked because I qualified back then, and I felt that, if I didn't qualify again for some reason, for whatever happened, I technically didn't qualify yet I did, but I couldn't call it an accomplishment,” she said. “For me to have to re-accomplish something that has been my life goal and dream was really tough on me. I couldn't stop looking at the Rolex Rankings. I couldn't stop worrying about what other people did up until this week, secured. I finally feel like myself because the one thing that was the pinnacle was to just hit that mark that I qualified for the Olympics as a USA athlete. All I can tell you is that I'm just so happy to be a part of that.”