SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — For much of Friday at the U.S. Women’s Open, Danielle Kang’s face seemed at odds with her body.
Her smile preceded her at Pine Needles — a big, beaming grin that she shared with the gallery, with her caddie Olly, and for a brief while, with the whole of North Carolina.
But it didn’t take more than a few footsteps to know her body felt differently. Her gait looked gimpy and her movements measured. Her swing — typically a model of natural movement and flexibility — was segmented, missing its usual ferocity and follow-through. She was at constant odds with her back — grabbing, kneading and stretching an area at the center of her spine.
After her round, a 3-over 74, we learned some of the reason why.
“Yes, I have a tumor. I do have a tumor in my spine,” Kang told a group of reporters Friday. “But right now, it’s not as simple as blaming the tumor to be the problem, but in the process of an issue. It’s not just that I have an issue with my back, there is more to it. The scary part is that.”
Kang first learned about the tumor after she withdrew from an event in Hawaii in mid-April. Kang and her mother, Grace Lee, told reporters they still don’t know much about the nature of the tumor, including if it’s the primary reason for the back issues she’s been dealing with as of late.
“After [the U.S. Women’s Open], they’re going to do more research and specialist work on it,” Lee said. “We don’t know if it’s benign. We don’t know if it’s malignant. We don’t know.”
“I’ve gone through a lot of procedures so far,” Kang added. “It’s process of elimination. And after that, we’re narrowing it down.”
It’s been a jarring few months for the Kang family — a situation that hasn’t been helped by a slow-moving treatment process.
“It’s not just the back pain, but we don’t know what it is for sure,” Lee said, sharing a mother’s anguish. “It takes so long to get the right answers.”
Kang and Lee said they’ve been meeting with specialists for the better part of the last two months, and that Danielle has had “multiple procedures” in an effort to solve the issues in her back. Those procedures helped to the degree that she was capable of teeing it up at Pine Needles, but her future beyond this week is less clear.
“I don’t know that I have any [timeline],” Kang said. “My only goal was to play the U.S. Women’s Open and I’m here.”
With so many unknowns, it was a relief for both mother and daughter to return to something familiar: competition. The two shared a sweet moment — a quick smile and a wave — during a quiet minute in the first fairway.
But then it was back to the tournament, and both of them seemed glad about that … until a bad bounce on Kang’s ensuing approach led to a triple-bogey eight on the first.
“I was pretty calm after the triple,” she smiled, rolling her eyes. (Evidently, the time away has done little to douse her competitive fire.)
Kang finished the day at 3-over, which puts her right on the cutline as of 3:45 p.m. local time on Friday. She’ll have at least the rest of the evening to let her mind care only about a golf tournament, and who knew how meaningful that could be?
“I haven’t played golf in eight, nine weeks. I played [last week’s Bank of Hope LPGA Match Play], and I think I was averaging nine over par,” Kang said. “So me coming out here hitting really good shots, good drives. Having the opportunity to make birdies, not being a nuisance to the rest of my group. That was a good thing.”