For Danielle Kang, it’s not easy to play golf these days

SOUTH PINES, N.C. — Danielle Cong is not a morning person. The 2017 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship winner really doesn’t like getting up early. However, lately, she has no choice.

Just over a month ago, Kang was diagnosed with a tumor on her spine, which she revealed after the second round of the U.S. Women’s Open at the Pine Needle Hotel and Golf Club on Friday. Kang said her back pain had been going on for a while, but she never thought the tumor would be a problem.

“I don’t want it to look weird,” Kang told ESPN after a third-round 73 Saturday. “But I’m not afraid of the outcome. I’m more afraid of not being able to play.”

The 29-year-old kicked off at 7:52 a.m. on Saturday, so the wake-up time for her new pre-round routine was even earlier than usual. She and her physical therapist Aaron Bond activate her back with warm-ups and pull-down exercises. They added kinesio tape to “lift the fascial tissue” and used cupping therapy. After her turn, they do it all over again.

“I have a lot to do,” said Kang, who won the 2017 Women’s PGA Championship. “That’s just for the U.S. Open.”

Kang was blunt about it: She shouldn’t have played at the Bank of Hope LPGA match play in Las Vegas last week. She shouldn’t be at the U.S. Open this week. The former happened because of her relationship with the sponsor, MGM Resorts. The latter happens because, as Kang will tell you, she’s not going to miss the U.S. Open, even if she and her team do consider skipping rope.

“I never miss it. I played here when I was 14 and I came here 15 years ago with my dad,” Kang said. “As long as I can push out there…I don’t want to miss another major, so I’ve been working on it. That’s my kind of player, but I think we’re at a limit.”

Kang said she didn’t have many answers about the tumor. Since the diagnosis, the situation has been less clear. However, the pain is undeniable. You can see this when she grimaces after a tough approach shot, or when she walks cautiously after a long drive. You can also see it in her eyes when she knows that all the prep work she’s doing before the game will only provide a huge relief from the discomfort and also prevent her from putting more energy into the game.

“I don’t feel well [Saturday]; I think I’m tired,” Kang said. “So I couldn’t pass the ball. I hit the ball left and right everywhere…not giving myself too many birdies. “

Both her team and her family encouraged Kang not to worry about her grades, but there was nothing Kang could do. She was disappointed with Saturday’s performance.

“I would never say I went there just to try and have fun. I was a competitor,” she said. “In the last few holes, injured or not, I just had to hit the ball. It caused some discomfort, but I hit some good shots.”

Kang made two birdies on the last four holes. On the 17th hole, she had just left the green and decided to take the lead. The ball grabbed the slope and came in slowly. Kang’s face lit up, and she raised her hands, celebrating with her caddie and thanking the audience for what, in her words, was a good early kickoff. That moment was an antidote.

“It’s been really tough the last few days and it’s been really fun,” Kang said of the chips. “I don’t know, I don’t have a lot of confidence in my game right now, so just execute shots, which makes me happy.”

The physical toll is one thing, but Kang also had to adjust to the mental toll it took on her. She said she understood when she saw the recurring bad footage. But she has to remind herself that she hasn’t lost her skills, and that may be temporary.

“I had to say, ‘I will,'” Kang said. “So I had to tell myself, no, ‘I’m going to be able to hit punches. I’m going to be able to hit control draws.’ Because I had to tell myself, I’m going to come back and play like I used to.”

Kang said she hopes to make it through Sunday’s final round. Then she’ll have more doctor appointments to try and get more answers about the tumor and how her golfing approach should evolve.

“My biggest fear is the unknown,” Kang said.

When asked how she handled the news when the tumor was first discovered, it took her a while to decide.

“It’s still being processed,” she said.

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