Once a year, the members of Lake Nona Golf & Country Club in Orlando, whose ranks include the likes of Ian Poulter, Justin Rose and Gary Woodland, among other princes of the PGA Tour, take part in a competition suited to their skills. Aptly known as "Tough Day," the 18-hole event showcases their course at its most imposing: the tees stretched back, the holes cut in their most sadistic positions. When the wind kicks up, as it often does, Tough Day devolves into a survival test.
And so it was this past year, when gusts whipped so fiercely off the layout's namesake lake that several of the pro scores ballooned into the 80s. Poulter played well, gutting it around in 76. But his tally left him seven strokes behind the winner, a relative unknown to golf fans in this country, even if she is the world's most dominant athlete.
At 22, with a bob haircut that gives way to coquettish bangs, Yani Tseng looks as much a giggling schoolgirl as she does a golf assassin, which still doesn't explain why her rise has been so stealthy. Unlike her childhood idol, Annika Sorenstam, whose former Lake Nona home Tseng now resides in, or her contemporary, Michelle Wie, the former teen queen, Tseng is not a darling of major U.S. sponsors. Also unlike those two more famous stars, she has made no flashy cameos on the PGA Tour (not yet, anyway). Tseng's surge to the pinnacle of golf is remarkable instead for the absence of sensation that surrounds it: none of the trumpet-headlines or "Hello World"–style fanfare that have accompanied other precocious ascents.
Since 2008, her first full year on the LPGA Tour, Tseng has reeled in majors at a historic rate. She won her first, at age 19, during her rookie season; Tiger Woods was 21 when he did the same. In 2010, she won two more, the youngest woman to claim three major titles. Then, last summer, as the earth stopped its rotation to pay homage to Rory McIlroy's U.S. Open triumph, Tseng, who is just four months McIlroy's senior, defended her title at the Ricoh-Women's British Open, to become the youngest player, male or female, to claim five majors by age 22.
Sorenstam, who was 32 when she won the fifth of her 10 majors, marvels at Tseng's record-setting pace. "It's easy to set goals and find motivation when you are chasing someone," Sorenstam says. "But when you're already the best in the world, you really need to stay focused and push yourself. Yani knows what it takes to become the face of women's golf."
Whether that will happen is another matter. Tseng's whirlwind success has made her an icon throughout Asia, nowhere more than in her native Taiwan, where on her way to a five-stroke victory at the Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship in October — her seventh LPGA title of 2011 — she required four security officers to shepherd her through the adoring throngs. But in the United States, most golf fans would struggle to pick her out of a police lineup, let alone I.D. her on a putting green. As one measure of her stature, consider the Davey Brown Index, a quarterly report that measures the brand impact of celebrities in this country, from B-list actors to A-list athletes. Tseng has yet to merit mention in its pages.
Tseng's low profile owes something to the place of women's golf itself, which has long been overshadowed by the men's tour. But few would deny that her modest Q-rating in this country also stems from the LPGA's image as a circuit composed of interchangeable parts from overseas. "If she were a 6-foot-3 blonde woman striding down the fairways, maybe people would pay more attention," says Gary Gilchrist, Tseng's swing coach. "But with everything's she's accomplished, more and more people really are starting to recognize her."
Says Tseng: "I can go to the mall here, and not many people recognize me. But on the golf course, the galleries have been getting a bit bigger, and I love it. I
want to tell people, ‘Come talk to me, I'm very easy to get to know.' "
With Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa roosting in retirement, and the ladies' tour scouring the land for sponsors, women's golf could use a global poster child, and Tseng, in many ways, is a comfortable fit. Preternaturally cheerful (her nickname in Taiwan is "the Smile Queen"), with a self-deprecating sense of humor, she is the antidote to the stereotype of the Asian robo-pro, dispatched across the continents to record joyless wins under the stern gaze of overbearing parents.
That much was clear on a recent morning as Tseng enjoyed some downtime at her Lake Nona home. The two-story house features a less-than-lived-in look suited to a woman who spends more than half the year on the road. It has one well furnished wing, and it's Tseng's favorite: a sunlit game room equipped with a Ping-Pong table, a pool table, and a sliding door that opens to an outdoor Jacuzzi and, beyond it, the plush fairways of the country club. "If I'm home," Tseng said, "this is where I'm usually hanging out."
It was a sweltering day, and Tseng was cooling off in the air-conditioning, having just run the table in three straight games of nine-ball — another game she's good at — while brandishing a sledgehammer break. In one corner of the room hung a boxer's speed bag, which Tseng jabbed playfully when she walked by it. Down a narrow hall stood a built-in glass fridge stocked with whiskies for her father when he visits from Taiwan, and wines from Tseng's own burgeoning collection, including a bottle of Annika Chardonnay, from Sorenstam's label.
Sorenstam, who moved to a neighboring Lake Nona home, has become a friend and a sounding board for Tseng, part sports psychologist, part sommelier. "I've talked to her a lot about how to handle the pressure of the majors," Tseng says. "But thanks to her, I'm also starting to learn how to drink wine."
Tseng learned the joys of golf from her father, Mao Hsin, a former club champion at his home course in Taiwan. He introduced her to the game, but he also knew his limits. By the time Yani turned seven, he'd paired his middle child with a local instructor named Tony Kao, whose greatest contribution was letting Yani be Yani. "For the first year or so," Tseng says, "the only thing he told me was to just swing as hard as I can and not worry where it goes."
That primal fundamental lives on today in a free-flowing swing that reaches speeds of 115 miles per hour (LPGA averages hover closer to 100) and rushes to completion in a high finish. A petite 5-foot-6, Tseng pounds the ball unlike any of her peers, often flying her drives 300 yards. "She is so aggressive, you could almost say she plays more like a man," says Gilchrist, who has coached Wie and former world No. 2 Suzann Pettersen.
Adds long bomber Gary Woodland, who has played with Tseng at Lake Nona: "She's a terrific ballstriker. She definitely holds her own out here with the guys."
By her early teens, Tseng was on a path familiar to most prodigies (overseas events; international academies), but she never played the role of a silent pawn in an adult endgame. Noting that her father's presence had an adverse effect on her performance, Tseng barred him from her tournaments, and he obliged. She pursued outside interests, among them hanging out at pool halls; by age 12, she was so skilled with a cue that she cracked the top 16 of a Taiwanese national nine-ball championship. "One more win," Tseng sighs, "and I would have been on TV." To fine-tune her swing, Tseng spent a summer at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Florida, but she bridled at its strictures, and left the program after one summer. "I learned a lot about the importance of training," Tseng says of the academy. "But I am a feel player, not a really technical player, so the approach there wasn't really good for me."
Her lack of tinkering worked. In 2004, Tseng won the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links at Golden Horseshoe Golf Club in Virginia, defeating the Chosen One, Michelle Wie, in a final that was rife not just with symbolism but also with foreshadowing. After 18 holes of the 36-hole contest, Wie held a 2-up lead, but "Michelle and her whole team were looking so serious," says Ernie Huang, a junior golf booster who introduced Tseng to the game in the United States and who was in attendance that day. "They spent the whole time between rounds on the range, trying to perfect her fundamentals. And Yani, who was losing, was just the opposite. She was smiling, talking to people, relaxing, having fun."
Another spectator that day was Wie's then swing coach, Gilchrist, who had come to watch his pupil but found himself transfixed by her opponent, who sealed a 1-up victory by draining a 12-footer on 18. "There's this little girl out there, maybe half Michelle's size but hitting it out there just as far, and sometimes farther, often without even using a driver," Gilchrist says. "You could tell right away you were seeing something special."
That's one word for her. In 2011, Tseng won seven times in 21 LPGA starts (through mid-November), including the year's final two majors by a combined 14 shots. She had 13 top 10s, led the tour in driving distance, birdies, and greens in regulation, and earned twice as much — $2.87 million — as any other player.
In a sport that encourages single-minded focus, and, very often, stultifying self-absorption, Tseng has earned admirers by leading an outward-looking life. In 2010, as the LPGA was backtracking from its bumbling proposal to require English-language proficiency from its members, Tseng enrolled in English classes on her own: not, she says, to appease the LPGA but to improve communication with her fans. "I think it's not a bad idea for the LPGA to want players to know English," Tseng says. "But that's not the way to do it. People should learn because they want to learn."
According to Dottie Pepper, the former LPGA star turned analyst, Tseng's outgoing attitude helps bridge an innate player-fan divide. "One thing about Yani that people pick up on is how engaging she is," Pepper says. "She's really out there trying to be just another American kid."
Tseng's assimilation has progressed so far that on trips to China, she often finds herself fumbling for words in Mandarin, which, along with Taiwanese, is a language she grew up with. She has embraced the United States as her adopted home. Before traveling to a tournament, Tseng reads up on the destination and makes a point of hitting the top attractions. A tournament in New Jersey meant a shopping excursion to Times Square.
At home and on the road, Tseng's near-constant sidekick is Naya Hsu, a former Taiwanese basketball star who serves officially as Tseng's manager and unofficially as her playful older sister, helping fill their schedule with diversions: Orlando Magic games, Lady Gaga concerts. They play pickup hoops, take hip-hop dance classes, and watch almost any sport that's on TV, preferably a tennis match involving Roger Federer, on whom Tseng professes to have a crush.
Fittingly, much of Tseng's relentless travel takes her overseas, where she finds not only the great bulk of her fans but also the fattest endorsement offers. In 2010, a Chinese company dangled a deal said to be worth $25 million; Tseng turned it down, reportedly because the contract would have required her to change her citizenship to Chinese.
At press, her lone U.S.-based sponsor was Adams Golf, which inked her to a contract in early 2009, just before she set off on her torrid majors run. "Clearly, we thought she had a lot of potential," says Adams CEO Chip Brewer. "But at the time we weren't thinking she had the brand strength to move the needle in the way that she does now." If Tseng continues on her current path, Brewer predicts, "she'll be as well-known and as popular as Annika and Lorena were."
As Tseng's frequent-flyer schedule attests, the axis of women's golf tilts increasingly toward Asia. And yet, for now, the most prestigious events remain in the States, including the title Tseng covets most. In her assault on the majors, only the U.S. Women's Open has eluded her.
Its absence on her résumé clearly irks her, all the more so because the house she bought came with a reminder. When Sorenstam moved out, she took her trophies but left behind a trophy room with built-in cases, empty shelves that Tseng has rushed to fill. On a recent afternoon, as she readied for a busy stretch ahead — range work, weights, hip-hop dance class — Tseng stepped inside the room to show off her progress: Shiny mementos from the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA Championship and the Women's British Open sparkled in their cubbies, alongside emblems from assorted other conquests.
In the center of one wall, though, a gaping space stared out at her. "That's where the big one is supposed to go," she said of the U.S. Open trophy.
She smiled, as if imagining its installation.
"When I won my first major, I didn't think I could win the second," she said. "And when I won the second, I didn't think I could win the third. But now with five, it's different. I'm kind of starting to believe that I can play.”
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