The final round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship was supposed to be uneventful, perhaps even boring. World No. 1 YanTi Tseng, whose dominance of late has triggered comparisons to Tiger Woods in 2000, was expected to coast to the winner's circle for the third consecutive week and for the fourth time in six starts in 2012.
Yet as the sun faded behind the San Jacinto Mountains at Mission Hills Country Club on Sunday, the title was still up for grabs. The back nine was producing more twists and turns than an episode of 24. Even Tseng, at 23 already a five-time major champion, was caught up in the excitement. Standing in the 18th fairway while waiting for the group on the green to clear, she wandered over to a reporter and said, "There's some drama, huh?"
In the end 25-year-old Sun Young Yoo of South Korea walked away with the trophy, playing the back nine in three-under 33 and winning with an 18-foot birdie putt on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff over I.K. Kim.
Yoo was fortunate just to be in the playoff. After dropping a 30-foot birdie at the par-3 17th, Kim, 23, took a one-shot lead to the 72nd hole. She reached the island green at the par-5 18th in three shots and lagged her 18-foot birdie putt to kick-in range. Kim, a three-time winner on the LPGA tour, let out a huge sigh of relief. Still, she kept with her preshot routine, marking the 10-inch putt, looking at the break from behind and finally taking her stance.
Then the unthinkable happened. Kim's par putt caught the right lip, circled the cup and spun out. The gallery let out an eerie gasp. Kim, who after winning the 2010 Lorena Ochoa Invitational donated her $220,000 check to charity, turned her head and covered her mouth with her left hand in disbelief, fighting back tears.
"You know, after the playoff, she said that maybe she should have gone right up and tapped it in instead of taking the time to go through her routine," said Kim's caddie, John Limanti. "But it's one of those things, what if she had done that and missed?"
Suddenly, Tseng, who after bogeys on three of her first eight holes had rallied with birdies at the 12th and the 17th, needed only a birdie at the last to get into the playoff with Kim and Yoo, whose only LPGA victory was at the 2010 Sybase Match Play Championship. But Tseng's 30-foot birdie attempt slid by on the right side. She fell backward on the green, holding her head in her hands.
Unlike last year, however, when she cried after losing the final-round lead to Stacy Lewis, Tseng didn't come close to shedding a tear. "I was shocked that I couldn't make that last putt," she said. "But I tried my best again. I don't feel I played really bad today. I think I just needed a little more luck to drop some putts. A little disappointed but not really. You know, it's not the end of the world."
In the opening round, Tseng fired a solid four-under 68, putting her two shots behind Amy Yang. That led one veteran writer to quip, "She's two back and nobody can catch her."
That appears to be the consensus on the LPGA these days. Asked if it felt as if everyone is playing for second place when Tseng is anywhere near the top of the leader board on Sunday, Tiffany Joh said, laughing, "I think that's kind of how you start the week."
Tseng may have been in contention, yet she was anything but thrilled with her play. She moved into the lead with another 68 on Friday, but judging by the difference in her body language, you would have guessed she had shot 63 in the second round.
"The score doesn't matter," she said. "I felt today my focus was so much better, but [on Thursday] I had a couple shots I just missed and wasn't committed to. [On Friday] every shot I gave my hundred percent focus. I feel so much happier."
Tseng's focus on approach over outcome is part of her goals for 2012. In fact, at the end of each season Tseng and her team-mentor Annika Sorenstam, caddie Jason Hamilton, manager Naya Hsu and adviser Ernie Huang, among others-sit down and set short- and long-term goals. Tseng committed to two goals for this season. First, she wants to smile more (she already smiles a lot, notes Huang) and better control her emotions. The other is to give 100% on each shot as she aims to lower her scoring average — a lofty expectation for a player whose 69.66 mark in 2011 led the tour by almost a stroke.
"It's easy to get so caught up in results that you forget everything else," Sorenstam said last Saturday. "You think life is good, but then when you're at the top, it's very, very lonely. You have to grow into that role. Bottom line is she continues to be better, she continues to work hard, and it's not just golf. We look at the overall picture — learning how to balance things in life, time management and how to deal with tournaments she doesn't play well at. One thing she's very good at is bouncing back and not dwelling on bad tournaments."
That's easier said than done. Along with the success Tseng has experienced and the dominance she has shown at such an early age comes the burden of great, if not unrealistic, expectations. And if she wasn't satisfied with her play on Thursday, imagine what she must have been thinking on the weekend. Yet even with her inconsistent play over the last 30 holes, she had seven bogeys and played the par-5s in an uncharacteristic one-over par — Tseng kept her emotions in check. As she walked by the grandstand next to the 18th green on Sunday, knowing she had a must-make birdie putt if she wanted to get into the playoff, she high-fived fans in the gallery, smiling from ear to ear. Even after the putt slid by, she cracked a grin.
The benefactor of the stumbles by Tseng and Kim was Yoo, who, like Tseng, now calls Orlando home. Yoo, who picked up the game at age 10, appeared stunned by the baffling chain of events. She didn't even realize she had a sniff at a playoff until she glanced at a scoreboard on her last hole in regulation. Then she assumed her chance at victory was over after she watched Kim lag her birdie putt inside a foot.
"She's a great putter," Yoo said of Kim. "She really doesn't miss those kinds of putts, but that's golf."
Perhaps out of respect for Kim, Yoo seemed hesitant to celebrate after her winning putt dropped. Or maybe the player who's called the Course Clown by her friends on tour was simply stunned by the unlikely turn of events. That was only fitting on a day that produced so many plot twists.