BARRINGTON, R.I.—Danielle Kang has never been one lacking in confidence. Of course, when you're the reigning U.S. Women's Amateur champion, maybe that comes with the territory.
Suffice it to say, the 18-year-old from Thousand Oaks, Calif., arrived at Rhode Island CC keenly aware that no one had defend their Women's Am title since Kelli Kuehne in 1995-96 and decidedly certain she could put an end to that streak.
With a 4-and-3 victory over Demi Frances Runas in the quarterfinals Friday afternoon, Kang moved one step closer to fulfilling her goal.
"I'm pretty confident in match play by now," Kang said. "I'm just going out there to have fun."
For most of the day, it appeared Kang had a fight on her hands, Runas holding strong as the match was all square through 10 holes. But suddenly it appeared Runas ran out of steam. The UC-Davis junior-to-be made bogeys on the 11th, 13th, 14th and 15th holes to let Kang walk off with the win.
While fatigue might have played a factor, so too did Kang's experience in match play. Not only did she make it all the way through the bracket at Charlotte CC last August, but she also claimed the North & South Women's title last month at Pinehurst No. 2. Both victories required her to learn how to pace herself during a long and mentally challenging week.
Kang has already said this will be her last amateur start before turning pro, her college career at Pepperdine cut short when she was declared academically ineligible last spring. With that in mind, Kang used the summer as an internship of sorts, playing as an amateur in three remaining LPGA major championships after teeing it up in the Kraft Nabisco in April. Kang made the cut all three times this summer, claiming low amateur honors in the Ricoh Women's British Open.
"Any tournament you play, you learn something," Kang said. "The U.S. Open teaches you patience. The British Open got me to not make little mental mistakes, like laying up when you have to and accepting a bogey. You learn something from every tournament. I think that's helped."
Kang says she paid particular attention to Yani Tseng, trying to absorb what it was that made her so dominant. "She never makes a mistake, or at least it seems that way," Kang said. "She's amazing."
As important as getting a first-hand look at how the pros go about their business, the summer play helped Kang get into a rhythm with her own game that has allowed her to peak this week in Rhode Island.
"I've improved throughout the summer," Kang said. "I think that obviously helps add to my confidence level."
Kang will face Alabama's Brooke Pancake in the semifinals Saturday at 10 a.m. The first-team All-American with the Crimson Tide hung on to beat UCLA freshman-to-be Erynne Lee in 21 holes after trailing much of their quarterfinal match.
"It was a grind out there," said Pancake, who trailed 2 down after only four holes and never led in the match until the end. "I just couldn't seem to give myself very many birdie changes."
Still, Pancake seized the moment when she needed to, making a 20-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole that squared the match. Both Pancake and Lee made pars on the 17th and 18th to force extra holes, then each made pars on the 19th and 20th holes. On the 21st hole, RICC's par-4 third, Pancake hit the fairway off the tee while Lee's drive clipped leaves on a try, leaving it in the right rough. Both players missed the green left with their second shots, but Lee flubbed her chip, leaving it in the left fringe. When her par try rolled six feet by the hole and she then missed left with her bogey putt, she conceded Pancake's par to give her the victory.
Asked if she felt she stole the match, Pancake wasn't ready to concede that given the quality of play toward the end of the match. "I guess I'll say I definitely battled it out."
It's the second straight year that Kang will play an Alabama golfer in the semifinals of the Women's Amateur. A year ago at Charlotte CC, Kang faced the Crimson Tide's Jennifer Kirby.
Could Rhode Island CC be a secret weapon for Kang in her attempt at going back-to-back? The Donald Ross course has hosted the Women's Amateur three previous times. Twice the winner has been someone who has had her name on the Robert Cox Trophy previously: Dorothy Campbell Hurd won for the third time in 1924 and Kay Cockerill repeated as champion here in 1987.
As I noted in Golf World Monday this week, only recent history suggests Kang shouldn't be the odds-on favorite. In the 15 years since Kuehne repeated as champion in 1996, no former winner has claimed the title. It's the second longest span in the championship's history (behind 1941-60) in which only first-times have been victorious.
Saturday's other semifinal match will pit Austin Ernst against Moriya Jutanugarn. Ernst, the NCAA champion from LSU defeated UCLA's__Stephanie Kono__, who struggled with her putter, in a lopsided quarterfinal match, 5 and 4. Jutanugarn, 17, similarly was shaky with her putter but scrapped out a 2-and-1 win over__Casey Danielson__.
Jutanugarn says that a right wrist injury that forced her out of the U.S. Girls Junior, allowing her to caddie for her younger sister__Ariya__, who went on to victory, is better but that some pain remains.
Ariya, who lost in the second round Wednesday, is now returning the favor to Moriya, as she carried the bag for her big sister during the quarterfinal match and will continue on for the rest of the championship. "It's good to have her out there," Jutanugarn said. "She's a player and she nows about golf so we can relate."