Danielle Kang enjoying 'freedom' after winning Women's PGA

KPMG Women's PGA defending champion Danielle Kang hits golf balls at River Point Park in Chicago onto a huge floating green on the Chicago River with former Chicago Bulls player Toni Kukoc (not seen) on Monday, May 14, 2018. The event was to promote the KPMG Women's PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes in Kildeer which runs from June 26 to July 1. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune via AP)
KPMG Women's PGA defending champion Danielle Kang hits golf balls at River Point Park in Chicago onto a huge floating green on the Chicago River with former Chicago Bulls player Toni Kukoc on Monday, May 14, 2018. The event was to promote the KPMG Women's PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes in Kildeer which runs from June 26 to July 1. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune via AP)
KPMG Women's PGA defending champion Danielle Kang hits golf balls at River Point Park in Chicago onto a huge floating green on the Chicago River with former Chicago Bulls player Toni Kukoc (not seen) on Monday, May 14, 2018. The event was to promote the KPMG Women's PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes in Kildeer which runs from June 26 to July 1. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune via AP)
KPMG Women's PGA defending champion Danielle Kang hits golf balls at River Point Park in Chicago onto a huge floating green on the Chicago River with former Chicago Bulls player Toni Kukoc (not seen) on Monday, May 14, 2018. The event was to promote the KPMG Women's PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes in Kildeer which runs from June 26 to July 1. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune via AP)

CHICAGO — It has been almost a year since Danielle Kang won the KPMG Women's PGA Championship, and her life looks pretty much the same.

Kang still has the same friends, everyone from fellow LPGA star Michelle Wie to hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky. She remains active on social media, delighting her Instagram followers with a peek at her life on and off the course. She continues to work on her game.

But there has been one major change for the 25-year-old player since her first LPGA Tour victory.

"Trying to force a win for the last few years and trying to just get it done, trying to win before my dad passed away, all of that was so hard on me," Kang said. "But finally just having that win just gives me this freedom. I can breathe. I feel free from myself. I can just be myself and just play golf like I used to."

Kang's father, K.S., died of cancer in 2013. She returned to Chicago on Monday for a promotional event ahead of this summer's Women's PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes. She took on former Chicago Bulls forward Toni Kukoc in a closest-to-the-pin contest on a small green floating in the Chicago River.

After a few successful practice shots, rain started to fall and wind began to swirl around the surrounding skyscrapers. Each player came up empty during the actual competition.

"It was really difficult to hit the green and make it stay on the green," a chuckling Kang said. "It's very windy, but it's definitely fun."

The conditions were much better when Kang shot a 3-under 68 in the final round at Olympia Fields last July for her first win in her 144th LPGA start. She birdied the final hole to thwart a challenge by defending champion Brooke Henderson.

Kang's previous best finish in a major was a tie for 14th in the 2012 U.S. Women's Open.

"That week, my golf game stands out to me, to be honest," Kang said. "I know a lot of different shots that I hit. I have memorable shot moments, and it wasn't just on Sunday."

The victory was one of a career-high six top-10 finishes for Kang in 2017. She also earned more than $1 million in a season for the first time, and went 3-1-0 in her first appearance for the U.S. in the Solheim Cup.

It has been a mixed bag so far this year. She finished in a four-way tie for second in the Women's World Championship in March, one stroke behind Wie. But she has struggled in five starts since Singapore, missing the cut twice and finishing outside the top 50 three times.

Kang said she is still learning about how to manage the rigors of the tour.

"We travel so much," she said. "I'm the type of person that if I'm home for one more day, that's really beneficial for me. Fitnesswise, golf is an all-day sport, too. I don't really have a lot of time and you can't really build muscles on the road.

"It's more about maintaining all of that. I didn't do a very good job of maintaining it this time, and I hope that I can get better at it."

Kang also is looking forward to her work with UNICEF, the worldwide children's advocacy group she sought out after her win at Olympia Fields.

While Kang comes from an affluent background — "I had everything that I ever wanted," she said — her parents instilled in her the importance of appreciating her blessings.

"I'm very passionate about, since I was young, that no one should be hungry," Kang said, "and UNICEF does amazing work on protecting children."

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Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

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