TOLEDO, Ohio – Exactly 100 years ago, Inverness hosted its first of four U.S. Opens. There’s an official program from the championship inside a glass case in the clubhouse. There weren’t any programs at this week’s LPGA Drive On Championship because there weren’t any fans. No friends and family or coaches or agents. Tee times were posted on a board outside the pro shop.
Danielle Kang might be the only player to ever win the LPGA Drive On trophy, as it was a last-minute event, thrown together in the COVID-19 era to give the tour a chance to create a bubble and give players an opportunity to compete.
And yet, it felt like a major championship inside the ropes. Only five players broke par. The No. 4-ranked player in the world won on a course and in conditions that tested every part of the game.
And bonus: The venue that will host the 2021 Solheim Cup delivered a Sunday singles-like showdown between Kang, who leads the U.S. points race and Boutier, who went 4-0 in her Cup debut at Gleneagles last year.
And double bonus: Kang’s boyfriend, Maverick McNealy, still had a chance to win on the PGA Tour at the Barracuda Championship in Reno, Nevada, by the time Kang wrapped up her own title.
“We definitely told each other, go and be aggressive,” said Kang of their pre-round talk. “Trust our games and don’t leave putts short.”
On the front nine Sunday, in unrelenting rain, Kang looked like she might run away with the Drive On after her aggressive lines yielded one strong look at birdie after another.
But Boutier bounced back, making three birdies in a four-hole stretch, even hitting the flagstick for a near ace on the par-3 12th. The Frenchwoman pulled into a share of the lead with Kang with four holes to play.
On the final hole, Boutier needed birdie to force a playoff. The former Duke standout delivered a beauty, knocking her 50-degree wedge to 5 feet. The ensuing lip-out stunned everyone, including the members who were dining on the clubhouse patio. (They couldn’t go on the golf course.)
“Yeah, it’s hard right now to just see the positive right away,” said Boutier, “but I definitely had, you know, a little bit of trouble in the beginning.”
As the sun broke through, Kang, 27, enjoyed a celebratory champagne shower from friends Amy Yang and Lizette Salas along with air hugs. A closing 2-under 70 put Kang at 7-under 209 for the tournament.
Now a four-time winner on the LPGA, Kang insisted that she wouldn’t look at the scores on her phone during the final round. It was permitted this week as there were no leaderboards. Ultimately she couldn’t help herself, pulling her phone out of the bag to check with three holes to play.
When it was over, Kang made sure to thank instructor Butch Harmon for spending a good deal of time with her in Las Vegas during the 166-day break in competition.
When asked to compare her game today to when she won the 2017 KPMG Women’s PGA, Kang said it’s less about mechanics and more getting a feel for the course.
“I felt at KPMG, everything happened at the right time,” said Kang. “Now I feel that my game is stable. That I can contend I’m not looking for that one thing that will get my going that week.”
Inverness presented a stern welcome-back test and players who chose to stay sharp through the offseason with tournament play were rewarded at the Drive On.
Mina Harigae rediscovered her love of competition during the coronavirus break, winning four Cactus Tour events. She took a share of sixth at Inverness alongside former Michigan State player Sarah Burnham, who won twice on the Cactus Tour in Arizona, once on the Eggland’s Best Tour in Florida and the Michigan PGA Women’s Open by 10 shots. Burnham’s previous best finish on the LPGA was a share of ninth at the Cambia Portland Classic.
Gemma Dryburgh won twice on the Rose Ladies Series before coming over to the U.S. for a two-week quarantine.
“I can’t imagine this being the first tournament back,” said Dryburgh, who became the first woman to win a professional event at Royal St. George’s during the break. “Definitely thankful I had that prep coming in.”
One of the most impressive showings of the week came from 2016 U.S. Women’s Open champion Brittany Lang, who finished tied for sixth in her first LPGA event since giving birth to daughter Shay in January.
“I’m winning in life right now,” said Lang. “I feel like a champion.”
Shay aced her first time on an airplane, said Lang, whose husband Kevin Spann also made the trip. Because Lang’s caddie couldn’t travel due to a hurricane, Spann picked up the bag, a first for the couple at an LPGA event. Lang felt they made a good team out there, which isn’t always the case for couples inside the ropes.
“I always just say, stay positive, let’s be positive,” said Lang when asked if the couple had any caddie rules. “Let’s be in a good mood. I’m not a machine. You’re gonna make a lot of mistakes.”
Shay rocked her first week in daycare too.
“Everybody’s like, who cried most? You or Shay?” said Lang. “Actually, nobody cried. (Maybe) Kevin. Just kidding.”