LONDON — The golfer Danielle Kang has a small tattoo on her right index finger to remind her of her parents’ advice to be herself. “Just be,” it reads. But those words took on added meaning after the coronavirus crisis shut down the L.P.G.A. Tour in February, and Kang found herself atop a receding wave.
At the time the schedule was suspended, Kang, 27, had recorded four top-three finishes, including a victory, in her previous five starts. She was No. 4 in the world, as near as she had ever been to the women’s world No. 1 ranking, a position that had seemed her destiny since she turned pro at the age of 18, less than five years after taking up the game.
To be heralded as a budding star while still essentially an apprentice had created a perception gap that Kang, a two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, had tried to close with impatience. That left the people around her worried as she entered lockdown. She was always so hard on herself, they thought. Would the negative thoughts churned by Kang’s inner dialogue overwhelm her during a pandemic?
Stripped of the peripatetic lifestyle that grounded her, could Kang, a searcher wrapped in intensity inside a bubble, just be?
The question hung in the air for five long months, but when the L.P.G.A. tour resumed recently with two events in Ohio, the answer was clear: Kang won both events to ascend to No. 2 in the world, within striking distance of South Korea’s Jin Young Ko, who has held the top spot for more than a year, as Kang begins play this week at the Women’s British Open at Royal Troon.
In Las Vegas, where Kang, a native San Franciscan, lives, the courses remained open during lockdown, she said, and she took full advantage. She worked with her coach, Butch Harmon, hitting shots with one of her least-favorite clubs, the 3-wood, until she had complete confidence in it. She also regularly engaged her boyfriend, Maverick McNealy, a PGA Tour rookie, in two- and three-hour contests around the green, stoking her competitive fire and refining her short game.
“People asked me left and right, ‘Are you bummed you’re not playing when you were playing so good?’” Kang said in a Zoom interview ahead of last week’s Ladies Scottish Open. “They asked me, ‘What are you going to do if you’re not playing good when you come back?’”
It was a case of two negatives — other people’s and hers — equaling a positive. “I’ve got this time,” she recalled thinking of her pandemic break, “and I’m going to utilize it as best I can to tune up my game.”
The hard work allowed Kang to pick up where she left off. Over the past 10 months, Kang’s lowest finish in eight tour starts is a tie for 12th. She has three victories, one second and two thirds. Last week, she tied for fifth, one shot out of a four-way playoff, at the Scottish Open.
“She has been doing amazing things,” marveled Collin Morikawa, who won the P.G.A. Championship two weeks ago. Morikawa, who also lives in Las Vegas, added, “That’s Tiger-esque type things, almost winning three times in a row.”
This week, Kang will try to collect her second major title, and sixth pro victory, at the Women’s British Open.
The player she is chasing in the rankings, Ko, will be conspicuous by her absence. Ko, who won two of last year’s five women’s majors, has not made an L.P.G.A. Tour start since the 2019 season-ending Tour Championship. Ko’s manager told Golf Channel.com last month that Ko’s return to the tour — and specifically the events around the British Open — is up in the air because of her concerns about Covid-19 containment in the United Kingdom and the United States. For the time being, Ko is playing on the Korean L.P.G.A. circuit, which allows her to stay close to her home base in Seoul.
South Korean players have won five of the 12 majors contested since Kang’s victory in the 2017 Women’s P.G.A. Championship, but global representation has become the tour’s calling card; players from four countries have won the seven tournaments contested in this disjointed season.
Kang, an American of South Korean descent, said she has kept in contact “with quite a few” of her Korean friends on the tour. The competitor in her wishes they were all at Royal Troon this week, but she said she recognizes that the hardships and hazards of traveling abroad during a pandemic have made playing a moot point for some.
“I do the best I can to understand from everyone’s perspective,” Kang said.
The delicate ecosystem of sports in the coronavirus age was driven home last week with the cancellation, because of health concerns and significant travel restrictions, of the tour’s October stop in Shanghai, where Kang is the two-time defending champion.
Kang praised the virus-prevention protocols in place at the first L.P.G.A. events of the tour’s restart. Of the Women’s British Open, she said, “As long as it was possible, I was coming.”
The PGA Tour resumed tournaments a month before the LPGA, allowing Kang to employ McNealy, 24, as a kind of advance scout for her strange, new world. She quizzed him about testing protocols. She asked him what he considered the toughest adjustment returning to tour play after such a long layoff. He told her to ditch a cart and walk the course during her practice rounds.
And after his first week back, when he was back to having to hit approaches at pins that weren’t in the middle of the greens, McNealy called the greenskeepers at TPC Summerlin, the Las Vegas course where Kang was preparing, with a favor. “He asked them to tuck all the pins for me the last few days of my practice,” Kang said.
The gesture was vintage McNealy, she said. “He’s so supportive of the way I am, as a golfer and as a person,” she added. “That’s the best way I can put it.”
The same week that Kang won the LPGA Drive One Championship in Toledo, Ohio, in the L.P.G.A.’s return, McNealy finished seventh at the Barracuda Championship in Truckee, Calif., which was his sixth tournament back. When they talked that night, McNealy’s excitement for Kang’s success was palpable, she said.
“He’s able to put his own dreams aside and be so happy for me,” she said. “And be happy with me. That’s hard to do, especially when you’re in the same career.”
Kang is on the cusp of becoming the third American woman since 2006, after Cristie Kerr and Stacy Lewis, to occupy the No. 1 spot. That would fulfill the prediction that her coach, Harmon, made when they began working together in 2018.
As soon as Kang believed that she was as good as everybody could see that she was, Harmon told her, watch out world. That should have been empowering, coming from a teacher who has worked with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson. But Kang still can’t help herself.
“He’ll say something and I’ll say, ‘Are you sure?’” Kang said, laughing. “And he’ll look at me and say: ‘Am I sure? Listen to me. I know what good looks like.’”