Rookie Yani Tseng startles the stars at the LPGA Championship

Tseng birdied four of the first eight holes on Sunday.
Mike Ehrmann/SI

Even as the shadows lengthened toward dusk on Sunday at Bulle Rock Golf Course in Havre de Grace, Md., one question hovered over the McDonald’s LPGA Championship as persistently as the broiling sun had all day: Doesn’t anybody want to win this thing?

Six players had been in the lead or within a shot of it during the final round, but no one had shown a killer instinct or, for that matter, the ability to make a putt. The two people who had been expected to battle most fiercely over this title, Lorena Ochoa and the woman she replaced at the top of the world ranking last year, Annika Sorenstam, had finished the day knotted at 11-under 277, but that was a stroke back of the two players who were headed to the tee of the par-4 18th for the fourth hole of a sudden-death playoff.

Walking up the hill from the 17th green after trading pars for three holes were two unlikely survivors of a wild, sweltering day — Maria Hjorth, an 11-year LPGA veteran from Sweden who was looking for her first major victory, and Yani Tseng, a 19-year-old rookie from Taiwan who had yet to win on tour. On a day when birdies were in short supply, it was Tseng who finally made the one that mattered.

Tseng hit her tee shot into the first cut to the right of the fairway but lasered a six-iron approach to within six feet of the hole. After Hjorth missed a 15-footer for birdie, Tseng stood over her ball and told herself, as she would comically recount, Just make this putt and win a major championship!

When she did, she became the first player from Taiwan to win an LPGA major and the first rookie to win one since Se Ri Pak took the LPGA Championship in 1998. “I can’t believe I just won a major, and I’m a rookie!” she said later. “Everything came so fast.”

One group of fans was especially elated to see Tseng carry off the championship trophy and a check for $300,000. Four women who called themselves the Yani Club and wore stickers that read, yani, a crown jewel had driven down from Newark to follow the friendly Tseng during the weekend, chanting, “Yan-i! Yan-i!” when she made a putt or unleashed a long drive. Two of the women had met Tseng when they played with her in the pro-am at last month’s Sybase Classic in Clifton, N.J. “She is the nicest kid,” said one of the ams, Madonna Hickey. “She gave us pointers on everything, from swinging the club to putting. She worried far more about teaching us something than playing her own game.”

Tseng appreciated the support. “Before I just heard, ‘Lorena! Lorena!’ Today it was ‘Yani! Yani!'” she said.

Among the others rooting for Tseng were her playing partner, Ochoa, and Ochoa’s caddie, David Brooker, both of whom had gently encouraged the rookie all day, even as Ochoa watched her own chances to become only the fourth player in LPGA history to win three straight majors melt away. On Friday the championship had seemed to be Ochoa’s to lose. That day the Guadalajara, Mexico, native, who already has six wins this season, including the Kraft Nabisco Championship, had topped Thursday’s solid three-under 69 with what she called a “very easy” 65 to take the lead by two strokes. She missed only one fairway and had 17 birdie chances, a number Brooker conceded was “a little scary” given that she normally gives herself 13 or 14 birdie chances. “People say, ‘Oh, she holes out everything,’ but she doesn’t,” said Brooker. “She has a lot left in the tank.”

On Saturday, Ochoa struggled on greens that had been soaked by rain earlier in the week and were steaming as the heat index rose to 107°. “I couldn’t get the speed,” she said. “They were really heavy.” Fighting a cold as well as the humidity, Ochoa missed four greens and took 32 putts while shooting a desultory 72.

Meanwhile, Sorenstam — who is retiring at the end of the season but before doing so hoped to join Mickey Wright as the only player to win the LPGA Championship four times — shot her second straight 68. That put her in a tie with Ochoa at 10 under, two strokes behind leader Jee Young Lee. Hopes for a head-to-head Sunday showdown between the top two players in the world were spoiled, though, when the LPGA sent out threesomes instead of twosomes for the final round because of the threat of morning fog that had delayed Saturday’s start by three hours.

Though they were in different groups, their battle appeared to be on when both birdied the 1st hole to pull even with leaders Hjorth and Lee. But with Ochoa and Sorenstam mustering only three more birdies between them for the rest of the day, the fight fizzled.

The normally even-keeled Ochoa betrayed her frustration on the 330-yard, par-4 16th. She hit her tee shot just 10 feet short of the green, and her pitch for eagle looked as if it were in the cup. But when it lipped out, she did half a cartwheel, rolled onto her back and covered her eyes with her hands. “I couldn’t believe I didn’t make it,” she said. “I never lose hope. I thought, Something will happen, I will finish with three birdies on the last three holes. It didn’t happen.” (Before signing her card, Ochoa’s brother Javier told her that their grandfather had died in Mexico during the night after a short illness. Less than two weeks earlier one of Ochoa’s uncles had died, and she had withdrawn from the Ginn Tribute.)

Sorenstam had her own trouble converting birdie chances. Her best opportunity came on the 415-yard, par-4 13th, after Lee and Hjorth sent spectators ducking for cover with tee shots that flew far left of the fairway. Hjorth’s ball caromed off a SkyCaddie technician and a spectator before landing in waist-high fescue. When a search party of a dozen people failed to find the ball, Hjorth had to play her provisional and wound up making a double bogey. Lee had to take two whacks to get out of the hay and also made a double, so Sorenstam — who had earned an appreciative round of applause for simply putting her tee shot in the fairway — only needed to make par to join Tseng atop the leader board. Instead Sorenstam’s birdie chip bounced off the hole, and she missed a four-footer for par. Asked if there were any shots she’d like back, she said, “I don’t know where to begin. A dozen or two would do it.”

Hjorth made up lost ground with birdies on 15 and 16, but she blew her chance to beat Tseng in regulation with a bogey at 17. Hjorth admitted that she didn’t know much about the teenager who beat her. “I only know she’s been playing really well this year.”

Tseng, who grew up outside Taipei and started playing golf as a five-year-old, has been playing well for years. Among her 19 international amateur victories was a win over Michelle Wie in the 2004 U.S. Women’s Public Links and a victory over Morgan Pressel a year later in the North and South Amateur. Tseng spent 2007, her first year as a pro, on the Asian and Canadian tours before sailing through LPGA Q school on her first attempt last fall. (Tseng’s caddie last week, Sherry Lin, a 26-year-old friend from Taiwan, is also an LPGA rookie.) In 10 starts before the LPGA Championship, Tseng had a pair of seconds and never finished worse than 28th. Given her high standards, she was understandably disappointed with the 73 she shot in the opening round. “I tried to play everything perfect,” she said.

Her coaches, two-time PGA Championship winner Dave Stockton and his son Ron, encouraged Tseng to relax, and Friday’s 70 led to Saturday’s nearly flawless 65, which put her only four shots off the lead going into the final round. Four birdies on the first eight holes brought Tseng to the top of the leader board, which is a sight LPGA fans might get used to seeing, just as Yan-i! Yan-i! is a sound they’ll no doubt get used to hearing.