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Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Yani Tseng relaxed at No. 2

By Melissa Isaacson

There probably wasn't a thing anyone could have told Yani Tseng to prepare her for the possibility that realizing her fondest dream would end up like it did.

But losing the No. 1 ranking in golf, she said Saturday, is just where she needs to be right now. And, as it turns out, it's a pretty good place for the game to be as well.

"Of course when I lost the world No. 1, I was sad. If I said, 'I'm fine,' [it would be a] lie," said Tseng, who dropped to No. 2 behind Stacy Lewis two weeks ago after 109 straight weeks on top. "For a couple days I was sad, but on the other side I am totally fine. Sometimes it actually feels really good when you say your goal is to be No. 1. I feel really good right now, really relaxed."

If that attitude comes across as anything less than competitive as Tseng and the rest of the LPGA Tour heads into the Kraft Nabisco Championship this week in Rancho Mirage, Calif., for the first major tournament of the year, consider what she has already achieved.

Tseng was a hero in her native Taiwan by age 19, when she became the youngest player to win the LPGA Championship. Less than three years later, at 22, she was the youngest player, male or female, to win five majors and had already captured two player of the year awards.

At 23, she had held the top ranking for more than a year, had just come off her third LPGA victory of 2012 with a win at the KIA Classic and was considered the overwhelming favorite to defend her title at the Kraft Nabisco.

But it would be her last title to date.

What has transpired since has been compared to Rory McIlroy's uneasy grip on the No. 1 golf ranking last year, and even the precipitous and mysterious fall of David Duval, golf's poster boy for "Whatever happened to & ?"

A very heavy crown

While it may be a stretch to take it that far, what has happened to Tseng over the past 12 months, beginning at the Kraft Nabisco when she finished just one shot out of the playoff but by all accounts was anything but sharp, is not a mystery.

Her game fell off and those closest to her said that like Duval and others before her, it was the pressure of being No. 1 that ultimately caused it.

"You dream about getting there and how fun it's going to be and you worked very hard to get there. Now you're up front and it's 'How do I stay here? I have to find ways to get better. I have to push myself,'" said close friend Annika Sorenstam, who once held the No. 1 ranking for 61 weeks.

Dottie Pepper, assistant Solheim Cup team captain and winner of 17 LPGA events, including two majors, said she remembered having the same feeling in 1992, when she was at No. 1 when Ping came out with the first world rankings.

"I remember when they released the rankings," Pepper said, "and thinking, 'Oh my, now I have to live up to it. I thought I did everything OK but now I have to be even better.' It really is a big deal but maybe not as great a thought. It really is a lonely place at the top."

Even, apparently, when there are more people around you than ever before.

"All of a sudden, everyone wants a piece of you every day, one way or another," Sorenstam said. "Yani is a very sweet person, she doesn't want to say no. And in the end, she's the one pushed aside herself, and along with that are the things that you enjoyed the most, what you're most at peace with and helped you play good golf."

And when that is affected, said Sorenstam, the physical part follows.

"One leads to another. You start pushing, you try harder," she said. "Before, you'd get to the tee and just rip it. Now, it's 'OK, I'm going to rip it,' but everybody is watching you so maybe you guide it more and it becomes more of a forced thing. Then when things don't go well, you try harder. Before, you weren't supposed to win; now all of a sudden you think you have to win at least five times a year."

Looking to make it fun again

In order to turn things around, said Tseng's coach, Gary Gilchrist, she has to find her own voice again.

"The problem is everyone's intentions are to help, but they can give her every tool and at the end of the day it boils down to what Yani wants," he said. "What is she going to do and what effort is she going to give to be No. 1 in the world? How badly does she want it again? What else does she want in her life? She hasn't won the U.S. Open yet, so that's a biggie.

This is the game I love. Why do I want it to get stressful and sad? I feel like I am already luckier than lots of people out there. The world No. 1 means a lot but it gives me great motivation now.

-- Yani Tseng

"But why is she playing? When she talks to me, she says she's playing because she loves competing and wants to play some of her best golf. But sometimes you can play your best golf and still come in third. Winning doesn't come easy. When you start to win it's contagious, and when you're struggling to win it becomes a battle."

Tseng said her friends tried to guide her but she had to learn on her own.

"Annika told me it's very hard when no one is in front of you," she said. "You just need to find your own way to be on top. But everyone is different, and it's not as easy as people think, because when you're No. 1 in the world, there is more stuff [happening] on the outside of the ropes. There is more attention. You feel the world No. 1 should play like the world No. 1 and you can't make any mistakes."

Tseng is described as "sensitive and caring" by her friends, and Gilchrist said at times over the past year Tseng may have been too sensitive.

"When so many people started writing about her game, that affected her because she really takes to heart what people think and really values the opinions of others," he said. "She started asking people too much and getting too much info and started doubting herself. I told her, 'Stay in a little bubble. Trust people closest to you because everyone is going to have an opinion.'"

When Tseng was disqualified from the KIA Classic two weeks ago after showing up late to the tee for the pro-am, it only enforced the notion that her head was still not in the right place.

But Tseng said it was just an unfortunate mistake that may not have been such a bad thing after all.

"It was sort of disappointing and I feel bad for the sponsors, fans and all those people who support me," she said. "Maybe the golf gods wanted me to take a break. I have been on the road for a long time and sometimes you're so busy, you don't have time to sit down and figure out what you want.

"I was sad I didn't play but things happen in life, you learn from it, and I need to move forward now. I would never do it again, but I feel great. I had a good break and I feel really relaxed now."

But how will that translate to the course?

"At the beginning of the year, I said in my mind, 'I just want to have fun. I don't want to worry about any result. Just be myself and it doesn't matter if I finish 100, 50, 3 or 1, I just want to play good golf,'" Tseng said.

"This is the game I love. Why do I want it to get stressful and sad? I feel like I am already luckier than lots of people out there. The world No. 1 means a lot but it gives me great motivation now. I'm happy for Stacy. [Her No. 1 ranking] is good for American golf. I feel really happy. Ladies' golf now is very strong. This is great for golf."

But is it great for Tseng?

Unrivaled no longer

"My biggest disappointment those two years when she was No. 1," said Gilchrist, "is that I don't think people took time to know who she was. She did something many players never did in the history of the game, winning five majors, but there was much bigger excitement for Stacy Lewis being No. 1 in the world because she is American.

"But it's great because there is more of a rivalry now, which they didn't really have before. There's Stacy and Yani but also [No. 3 Na Yeon] Choi, [No. 4 Inbee] Park, [No. 10 American Paula] Creamer. What the LPGA needs are more rivalries."

What the LPGA needs, said Pepper, is a No. 1 player who plays as if it is not a burden.

"[Lewis becoming No. 1] should make [LPGA commissioner] Mike Whan's job a lot easier," Pepper said. "Not to take anything away from Yani, but Stacy seems to have said everything right at the beginning, that she is embracing No. 1 and not seeing it as something of an island. It has been a Yani island for a while."

Still, Golf Channel's lead analyst and LPGA Hall of Famer Judy Rankin said it would be a mistake to ever count Tseng out.

"Yani is so good that it's just hard to believe she doesn't by accident fall into a win again," she said. [And] I think once she does, a lot of things will come together. She was at a point in time where it almost seemed like it wasn't a contest.

"[But] I think even if Yani's game gets to where it should be and where it can be, it is a new day and it's going to be a contest no matter what, and I think she knows that. I don't think that tremendous dominance is coming again."

Gilchrist said that with Tseng focusing solely on her game again, it may be the best thing for her.

"The whole issue last year was that she was focusing so much on keeping the No. 1 spot, she didn't really focus on preparing mentally for tournaments," he said. "This year is about simply getting excited about playing again. She has also been working on putting and chipping inside 100 yards. She's working on her fitness program to work on functional movement, which will keep her healthy and allow her to increase the speed of her swing. We're really expecting new things."

Sorenstam said she expects the rivalry with Lewis to be as good for Tseng as her rivalries were for her.

"Because she's a competitor, I know she wants to be the best out there and this can help her," she said. "It can be an exciting year for the LPGA for that reason."

However it plays out, said Tseng, she will be wiser for it.

"I feel like I'm living my dream already," she said. "Sometimes it feels like it's not real and sometimes it feels very real. I'm just more appreciative now for those two years as No. 1, more mature; I know more things. I'm not sad. I have a very happy life."