Olympic dreams will be realized, crushed amid major drama at KPMG Women’s PGA Championship

JOHNS CREEK, Georgia – Danielle Kang broke down and cried, and then she panicked when she found out that qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics had been extended 15 months. She was in when the rankings were frozen, but could she hold on?

“For me to have to re-accomplish something that has been my life goal and dream was really tough on me,” said Kang, whose Olympic dream began when she took up Tae Kwon Do as a youngster.

“I couldn’t stop looking at the Rolex rankings. I couldn’t stop worrying about what other people did up until this week, secured.”

While the pressure is on for other players at this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship – the final event before Olympic qualifying ends on June 28 – No. 6-ranked Kang can focus solely on the task of winning a second major. To that end, she has swing thoughts written on her hand, her glove and likely up and down her forearms.

“I finally feel like myself,” she said, “because the one thing that was the pinnacle was to just hit that mark that I qualified for the Olympics as a USA athlete.”

While the likes of Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen won’t be at the Summer Games, so far no woman has taken a pass at Tokyo. Quite the opposite in fact: They’re all in.

“I just think men golfers, they just have so many big events,” said 2016 gold medalist Inbee Park. “They definitely play a different level of golf with a lot of different perspective. They have so many opportunities and so many different weeks with so many big tournaments. For us, I think it’s a little different. We’re not as big as men’s golf. So I think girls just treat it a little differently.”

The lucrative FedEx Cup starts two weeks after the Olympics

Judy Rankin, while observing from afar, looks at the equality of exposure that exists in the Olympics as a reason in general that women might put the experience at a higher level than some men.

“Everything that the male athlete is asked to do and is given,” said Rankin earlier this year, “is the same thing that a female athlete is asked to do and is given.”

There’s no denying the level of fame a medal can bring. Park won seven major championships but turned into a mega-star in South Korea after she won the gold medal.

“When Inbee was teeing it up to win her fourth major in a row (in 2013), the Korean rating on TV was about 8,” said LPGA commissioner Mike Whan at the ANA Inspiration. “An you guys know because you follow, an 8 rating is Tiger Woods in the Masters. It’s a huge number. In Korea, that’s what you would expect. Here she was about to make history like nobody had ever seen. When she won the Olympics, the TV rating was 27.1.

“As she said, she went from being a really – what did she say? A really noteworthy golfer to being one of the most famous people in Korea in one weekend.”

Shanshan Feng became the first player from China to become a member of the LPGA and win a major title, but it was after her bronze medal in Rio that participation numbers in the junior ranks really took off.

In 2015, Feng said the number of juniors who had registered with the CGA to play in a tournament was around 3,000. That number, she noted, has since grown to around 100,000.

When she won a major title, Feng said most Chinese knew so little about golf that they didn’t even know what a major even meant.

“They didn’t have a clue,” she said.

Olympic medals, however, needed no explanation.

Meijer LPGA Classic - Round One

Leona Maguire of Ireland waves to fans after a par on the 15th green during round one of the Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give at Blythefield Country Club on June 17, 2021 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Even though plenty know about golf in Ireland, Leona Maguire noticed that many tuned into for the first time back home when she competed in the 2016 Olympics as an amateur. Leona had identical twin sister Lisa on the bag when she recorded the event’s first birdie. She called it the coolest week of her life.

“Because we were the second week,” said Maguire, “we were watching gymnastics and swimming and everything at home and all of a sudden, you’re there. Serena Williams walks by and Michael Phelps walks by. We got to go to the track and watch Bolt, and Phelps’ last day in the pool.”

Sadly, COVID-19 restrictions will keep first-timers from having a similar experience in Tokyo. The women’s competition for the 2021 Olympics will take place Aug. 4-7 at Kasumigaseki Country Club and participants aren’t likely to see much beyond the hotel and golf course.

“Unfortunately, it kind of sucks our parents can’t come if we do all qualify,” said Nelly Korda, who hopes to be joined by sister Jessica and brother Sebastian (tennis) in Toyko, “but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

The Kordas’ mother, Regina, a former tennis player, is the only one in the family who has previously qualified for the Olympic Games, having represented Czechoslovakia in 1988.

Jessica, No. 13 in the Rolex Rankings, currently holds the fourth and final spot for Team USA but 18th-ranked Ally Ewing is one of several Americans who could unseat her with a victory at Atlanta Athletic Club.

“Honestly, what happens happens,” said Jessica on the eve of the event. “It’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do.”

Sophia Popov said competing in Tokyo will fulfill a family dream that goes back generations. Her younger brother, Nicholas, swam for the University of Arizona and barely missed out on qualify for the London Olympics. Mom Claudia swam for Stanford and never saw her Olympic dream come to fruition.

Popov, the 2020 AIG Women’s British Open champ, said her mom and brother asked if they could get the Olympic rings tattooed and write “brother” or “mother” underneath.

“I was like, you can do whatever you want to,” said a smiling Popov. “… it’s also why I want to go so badly is because I have two other people to represent that I feel like could have been there in the past.”

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