The LPGA scripted a riveting storyline in its restart amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Danielle Kang stepped up in the starring role.
Conjuring memories of last year’s tense Solheim Cup finish in Scotland, Kang wrote a better ending for American fans, holding off a European while playing through cool, intermittent rain to win the Drive On Championship Sunday at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.
Kang won after France’s Celine Boutier missed a 5-foot birdie attempt at the last, agonizingly grazing the left side of the cup.
Kang, 27, hoisted the trophy hoping the day’s thrills weren’t all over.
She didn’t take long after winning to check her cell phone to see if her boyfriend, Maverick McNealy, was making a run at doubling the couple’s pleasure. McNealy was in contention on the West Coast, playing the PGA Tour’s Barracuda Championship.
“I’m really excited to watch,” Kang said. “It would be cool if we both get to hoist the trophy today.”
Mostly Sunday, Kang was grateful what Sunday meant to everyone in women’s golf. Even without spectators at Inverness Club, she knew what the return of the LPGA meant to followers of the game.
“I’m so thankful for our commissioner [Mike Whan] and the entire LPGA staff, because I love the decisions that they made,” she said. “I am so thankful in how safe they made it for us . . . I’m so thankful that they’re going out of their way to make sure that we can play.”
Inverness Club, which will host next year’s Solheim Cup, offered a major championship test, with just five players finishing under par for the week. Still, you wouldn’t have known it was the LPGA’s first event since February watching Kang play.
She looked rust-free going wire to wire for her fourth LPGA title.
With a 2-under 70 in a tense final round, she finished at 7-under overall.
“I kept telling myself, ‘Stick to the game plan,’” Kang said. “The game plan was to play aggressive and play my game. No matter what anybody else did, it didn’t really matter.”
There was more than a little bit of Hall-of-Famer Annika Sorenstam in that game plan. Kang said Sorenstam has been a help to her as she has steadily climbed the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, with Sunday’s victory giving Kang a chance to move up from No. 4 in the world.
“She is my idol,” Kang said. “I really appreciate the opportunity that she gives me to learn. And then the fact that she listens to things that I have questions with.”
Sorenstam told Kang that a 54-hole event like the Drive On Championship requires a more aggressive mindset, right from the start. Kang took the advice, stepping on the gas early with a 66 in the first round.
Kang also credited Butch Harmon, her swing coach, for helping take her game to another level. And thanked McNealy and her brother, Alex, for keeping her sharp during all the down time amid the pandemic in Las Vegas, where she lives and where Harmon is based.
“I played with my brother a lot, and I played with Maverick a lot,” she said. “Both of them are great competition.
“I played from their tees. I played from my tees. I played different golf courses. I played Shadow Creek from all different tees. I played TPC Summerlin from front tees to back tees.
“The boys that I get to play with are so good that I try and keep up. We always have a competition, and I think that keeps me focused and up to date.”
And on a rise to No. 1 in the world rankings.