CHASKA, Minn. — Jimin Kang is petite, but she walks with an energy and bounce that makes her seem taller than her 5 feet, 6 inches. The 39-year-old talks fast, and every other sentence has a joke in it. She’s one of nine LPGA teaching pros in the field at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, but Kang was the only one to make the cut.
Truth is, she’s not your average teaching pro. In fact, Kang only got her Class A teaching certification in December 2018. This isn’t her first LPGA major either, as she was a member of the LPGA Tour in the early 2000s. She even finished T-7 in this event in 2010. But this is the first LPGA cut she has made since 2014. And it’s the first cut she’s made since she quit playing full time.
Kang’s story in elite golf started 20 years before this week’s tournament at Hazeltine National, when she finished runner-up to Dorothy Delasin at the 1999 U.S. Women’s Amateur. She went on to play college golf at Arizona State, a powerhouse that won six national titles in the 1990s. Kang was teammates with Blair O’Neal while at ASU, and won two collegiate titles, including the 2002 Pac-10 Championship when she ended Lorena Ochoa’s seven-tournament win streak. Kang’s coach, Linda Vollstedt, remembers her as full of charisma, energy and humor. And of course, impressive golf. Kang stayed at ASU for two years, then left school to turn pro in 2002.
In 2005, she won her first LPGA event, the Corning Classic. In a tie for second, two strokes behind Kang, was Annika Sorenstam. Kang won on the LPGA Tour again in 2010, at the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia.
But then, things took a really bad turn.
Exactly what happened is a bit mysterious. It started as sinus pain, which Kang began taking allergy medication to try to remedy. The pain was severe, and Kang describes it as it as feeling like someone trying to scoop out her eyeball. Doctors increased her medication dosages, and Kang got shots after rounds. She often wore masks to filter the air.
“This is not where I should be,” Kang said she realized in 2015. “I’m too busy thinking about what medications I should be taking, which shots I should be getting. I couldn’t even think about golf. And because I was over-medicated, I was having a hard time breathing.”
Vollstedt remembers it got so bad that Kang could barely get out of bed. Finally, enough was enough and Kang decided to stop playing, putting her clubs away for good. She also stopped taking the medications, hoping simply to let her body heal.
In the meantime, Kang decided to go back to school, retuning to ASU to complete her degree in Communications and Family and Human Development. “I thought one of the greatest things she did was get her degree,” Vollstedt said. “It’s really hard to go back, but she did it.”
One of her classes had an option for the final: Write an 80-page paper or do an internship.
“I thought about writing a paper, but then I was like, Oh God, how am I going to write this?,” Kang said. “So then I started thinking about an internship. And I was like, What am I going to do? I’ve never worked in my life other than golf.”
Kang talked to her friends, and they came back to her with office-based ideas, which she quickly rejected. Then the idea to work at a golf course came up. She started talking to courses, but was told she was overqualified to work in the bag room. Instead, one facility asked if she’d be interested in teaching a junior clinic. The scheduling didn’t work for that specific club, but it put the idea of instruction into Kang’s head.
Eventually, Kang found an instructor job at a public course outside of Seattle. “I didn’t know how to teach properly. And I thought I knew what public golf was,” said Kang. She tells a stories about people showing up to lessons without clubs, some wearing flipflops.
“I realized, this is what real public golf is,” Kang said. “It opened my eyes.”
She loved teaching. And her students loved her, too. She soon got popular, too popular. “I didn’t know how to organize my schedule,” Kang said. “I was teaching from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., I didn’t even have time to go to the bathroom. They could see they were improving right away. My phone was vibrating all the time.”
Her students weren’t the only ones who were loving the setup. Kang, too, was realizing there was another side to golf that she loved. “I really enjoyed it. The feedback of their happiness was tremendous,” Kang said. “I thought, maybe I should learn how to teach properly.”
So, she went through the process of getting her LPGA teaching certification.
“My seminar was priceless, I loved it,” Kang said. “I passed the test. It was hard. I grew up as a player, we always have been asked about our thoughts and opinions, but teaching is the other way around. I have to listen, and I have to figure it out. It was eye opening.”
She doesn’t have a permanent place to teach yet, and has mostly just been giving lessons for friends. She’s been off of all allergy medications for four years, and has been feeling good. Being around golf and feeling healthier, Kang started to play a bit again.
That progress slowed when she pulled her groin while working out in February 2019. The pain kept her from being able to play. She worked on her short game a bit, but walking and taking full swings was painful. Unsure she’d be able to walk the 36 holes, she went to the U.S. Women’s Open qualifier in Scottsdale in May.
“Honestly, I have no clue how I qualified,” Kang said. “We were just happy I finished.”
She missed the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open at the C.C. of Charleston, but since she’s a teaching professional, she played in the qualifier tournament to make it into the field at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
Kang opened with rounds of 73-70 at Hazeltine National, putting her in the top 10 after 36 holes. But after a bogey-free round on Friday, Kang made six bogeys and a double while shooting a Saturday 80, dropping her to 71st entering the final round.
When asked if this is how she’d imagined her life in golf would be, she shakes her head and says no. But then quickly, as is her charm, turns to a joke.
“I never even thought I’d be this old and single.”