Yani Tseng and the American Dream

(published July 7, 2011)

Didn’t we just see this movie?

Plot outline: A 22-year-old golfer turns in a dominant performance to win a major after having blown a multi-shot lead in the final round of the previous one.

Up next is the championship this player has dreamed about since childhood.

So why is nobody paying attention to Yani Tseng?

She tees off in the U.S. Women’s Open at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs on Thursday with a chance to complete the career Grand Slam before turning 22 1/2.  She won the Wegmans LPGA Championship two weeks ago by ten strokes, to go along with last year’s Kraft Nabisco Championship and RICOH Women’s British Open (and another LPGA Championship in 2008).  That’s three of the last six majors, with a second place in one of the three she didn’t win.

Too bad the most exhaustively covered story in golf this week has been Tiger Woods declaring he won’t play in next week’s British Open.

Women’s golf has struggled in the U.S. in the last half-decade, victim of the economic downturn, an obsessive public focus on All Things Tiger, and the perception that the sport’s top players are an interchangeable cadre of Asians who don’t speak English.

For what it’s worth, while the LPGA schedule has an especially broad international flavor this year, only one player from Asia has won a tournament (three of them, actually), the other winners being an Australian, a Swede, a Norwegian, two Americans, and a German (by way of the University of Florida).

Yani Tseng has the power, consistency, and touch to wow the crowds as thoroughly as she dominates her LPGA peers.  She ranks fifth on the tour in driving distance (just a few inches behind Michelle Wie, who’s half a foot taller), first in greens in regulation (GIR), third in putts per GIR.  Unsurprisingly, then, she’s on top of the money list, leads in scoring average by nearly a full stroke, and is lapping the field in Rolex Player of the Year points.

The title she most covets is the one she’ll seek this weekend.  She came to the United States from Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) when she was 12 to try to develop as a golfer.  She went to her first U.S. Open in 2002 as a 13-year-old spectator, watching Juli Inkster win at Prairie Dunes, standing by the gallery ropes and collecting autographs on her souvenir flag.

Hoping to play in the Open herself one day, she looked at the U.S.G.A.’s website to see what tournaments she could enter.  Two years later, she defeated defending champion Michelle Wie for the Women’s Amateur Public Links title, winning the 36-hole final one-up.

She told a press conference on Tuesday that she’s actually feeling less pressure this week than she has at past Opens.  “After I see Rory McIlroy do it, I feel much relaxed,” she said of the young Northern Irishman’s U.S. Open romp.  “I just got to come out here and have fun, enjoy the pressure and enjoy the big crowds.”

(Rather than clean up her syntax, I‘ve chosen to quote her directly out of respect for the effort it takes to speak a foreign language in a public forum.  I couldn’t do as well in another tongue.  Some PGA players might not do as well in English.)

The Broadmoor’s East Course will be listed at over 7,000 yards, the longest in Women’s Open history, though balls generally fly 10% farther at its 6,230-foot elevation.  When the Open was last held at the Broadmoor in 1995, the course played at 6,398 yards; given the U.S.G.A.’s set-up philosophy under Executive Director Mike Davis, it is unlikely it will be stretched to its maximum length.

If it were, though, that would be fine with Tseng.

“The fairway is not as narrow as I thought,” she said, “so I can hit the driver and just [put it] on the fairway.”

She has worked hard to improve her English, taking a month of classes in Orlando at the end of 2010.  “I think speaking English just give me lots of confidence,” she told the media Tuesday.  “Sitting here or on the course, I don’t afraid to talk to the player.  But before when I don’t [speak English], I try to stay away from them.  Even [if] they don’t see me it’s okay, because I was so afraid to talk.

“But now I just – I don’t afraid.  I feel confidence.   I like people to talk to me.  I just really enjoy and feel I can be part of this…. I can share my story.  I can tell the media, tell the fans what I think and what I like [about] this golf course.  So big difference.”

It would be particularly sweet to win at the Broadmoor, where her role model and good friend Annika Sorenstam won the first of her three U.S. Opens in ’95.  “Since I was 12 I wanted to be like Annika and play with her on the LPGA tour,” she told Sports Illustrated in March.  “Watching her on TV inspired me to practice and work hard to achieve my goals.”

Tseng bought Sorenstam’s former house at Lake Nona in Orlando – Annika now lives 300 yards down the street — and the two got together recently and talked about the course and the pressure of expectations.  “It helps a lot,” Tseng said.  “We have good wine and we chat a bit… She’s say, You know, just like last week: smile always and be good body language, and then be aggressive.  That’s how you are.  You will really enjoy this week.”

For this Taiwanese resident of Florida with a Swedish mentor, a U.S. Open victory would be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and the culmination of years of hard work and self-improvement.

I can’t think of anything more American than that.




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