Danielle Kang, Nelly Korda are first, second halfway through season-opening Diamond Resorts TOC
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Danielle Kang plopped down in an office chair to listen to country music artist Cole Swindell take questions (...)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Danielle Kang plopped down in an office chair to listen to country music artist Cole Swindell take questions from the press. Her caddie brought her a Sprite, and she settled in as Swindell talked about playing his first concert since March on Thursday evening at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions.
The LPGA’s TOC is one glitzy party, hosted at the Four Seasons on the grounds of Walt Disney World in picture-perfect weather. Kang arrived late this year from Las Vegas due to two different exposures to COVID-19.
Her interrupted offseason preparations, however, did nothing to slow down the world’s fifth-ranked player. She leads the field of 25 by two strokes heading into the weekend after a pair of bogey-free rounds put her at 13 under for the tournament.
“I’m just trying to play smart,” said Kang. “I been here for three years now. I think I know where to capitalize.”
Kang, who is known to crank up the country music on her way to the course, is grouped with Swindell at the TOC for the first round each year. The two friends got a bonus round together on Friday and were joined by Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, a two-time winner of this event.
Nelly Korda, who at No. 4 is the top-ranked American in the world, sits alone in second place. Her older sister, Jessica, dropped down to fifth after a 69. It was a special day for Nelly given that she played alongside LPGA Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam, a Diamond Resorts ambassador competing in the celebrity division for the first time.
“She still has it,” gushed Nelly of Sorenstam. “She has her touch around the greens. It was honestly surreal.”
Nelly actually competed as a junior in Sorenstam’s foundation events, but Friday marked their first time inside the ropes together.
“She played fabulous,” said Sorenstam. “She drove it beautifully today. Hit a lot of good iron shots. I actually felt like she probably could have been a few shots better. These how good she played.”
Nelly revealed that after the CME Group Tour Championship she split up with swing coach Justin Sheehan and went back to longtime instructor David Whelan, whom she first started working with at age 15. They’ve worked on going back to a steeper swing, not moving as much with her hips during the downswing.
“I just trust Dave so much,” said Nelly. “I mean, he’s built my golf game.”
In Gee Chun matched Kang for the day’s low round of 65 to take a share of third with 2020 TOC winner Gaby Lopez. While all the South Koreans ranked inside the top 10 chose not to come back to the U.S. for the LPGA’s season-opener, Chun never left. The two-time major winner bought a house in Dallas three weeks ago.
“I thought I don’t need a house here because I have a good host family in the U.S.,” said Chun, “so like a grand mom, and I always staying at their house.
“But I changed the mind during last year, because if I have a house here, it feels more like home, then maybe less miss all my Korean friends. Maybe I have more opportunity to make friends in the U.S. That’s why I change my mind.”
Cheyenne Knight shot 29 on the front side (her back nine) to shoot 66 on her 24th birthday and climb into sixth place. She nearly aced the par-3 third hole, hitting a 7-iron from 160 yards to 1 foot.
“You get a $1,000 gift card to Bonefish,” Knight said. “My caddie yelled, ‘Bonefish!’ while it was tracking to the hole. A tap-in birdie is always nice.”
Former tennis player Mardy Fish, a two-time winner of this event, leads the celebrity division by five points over Josh Scobee, a former NFL placekicker, and Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks, who has girlfriend Cheyenne Woods on the bag.
Fish has amassed 78 points in the Modified Stableford format. Sorenstam is tied for ninth, 13 points back.