Yani Tseng is struggling to find her mojo
KOHLER, Wis. -- Juli Inkster thinks about the different world a young golfer like Yani Tseng has come of age in, compared with her experiences three decades ago.
"When I won my U.S. Amateur back in '80, I think people found out the next week by pony express," Inkster joked. "Nowadays, top players are scrutinized for everything. Right or wrong, that's just the way it is.
"Yani is young, and sometimes it's hard to take. But she's a great player. She cares about the LPGA. She wants to do things right. Her 'bad' game is still probably 90 percent better than most out here."
Ah, but that's the thing when you're ranked No. 1 and are poised to potentially win a career Grand Slam by age 23. You're not supposed to show your "bad'' game. Or if you do, it has to go away quickly. And in Tseng's case, it has been lingering.
She has won three LPGA titles this year, but the last one was in March. This past weekend, she missed a 54-hole cut. At times, she has looked as if she's not much enjoying a game she normally relishes.
Now here she is entering the biggest event, the U.S. Women's Open, the only major she hasn't won. And if things continue as they have, she may find Blackwolf Run to be quite a struggle. So what, if anything, is really wrong?
Tseng has been saying all along it's mental, a sudden onset of doubt creeping in when she begins a competitive round. She said her coach, Gary Gilchrist, has assured her there is nothing technically wrong with her swing.
"So it must be my mental," is how Tseng describes it. "Because sometimes when I start on the tee, I still worry about whether my ball is going to hit right or left.
"But I feel good this week, actually, very peaceful and thankful for playing the Open. The very first tournament I watched is the U.S. Open when I was 13. And that was the year Juli Inkster won."
Even though that 2002 Women's Open was held in Kansas, they actually did not need the pony express to get out word of Inkster's victory. She was 42 then, and now at 52 is playing in her 33rd Women's Open. She says she's still out here because she loves the game. Inkster has two daughters, the oldest of whom is about the same age as Tseng.
Inkster talked about so many of the young players on the LPGA tour today, like Tseng, being caught up in the mechanisms of the business at a very early age.
"They've had the video analysis, the physical therapists, the trainers," Inkster said. "We used to just play. All day. We didn't know what our swing looked like. We just knew this is where the ball had to go, and we tried to get it to go there."
That might be the best philosophy for Tseng to use this week.
"She's had a nagging elbow injury, and she's feeling an enormous amount of pressure about the career Grand Slam and trying to live up to an incredibly fantastic 2011," said analyst Dottie Pepper, a longtime pro. "Especially with the social-media world, today's players are much more transparent and exposed. So they're going to learn much faster and/or harder."
Tseng thinks of herself as an entertainer, someone who wants to put on a good show for the spectators. She's also always polite and accommodating with media, which for her is a double duty. After talking with the English-speaking press, the native of Taiwan has another gathering with the Mandarin-speaking media.
That means more of her time goes to such responsibilities than would be the case for an American player, simply because she must do it all twice. And when that attention turns to "What's wrong?" questions, that's something she's learning to deal with.
No one wants to see the engaging, friendly aspects of Tseng's personality change. But there may be a gradual "toughening up" that will happen as she processes disappointing results.
"It is a mental hurdle that she's going to have to get over," Pepper said. "Because she has to answer the questions to herself and then to the media. It's part of being a professional athlete. Of course, there's a mental aspect to it, but you're going to have the media remind you about it all the time. So you have to be doubly tough."
Pepper also points out that during Tseng's so-called "slump," location didn't help matters.
"She couldn't have had two worse golf courses match up for her than in Atlantic City and the LPGA Championship [in Rochester, N.Y.]," Pepper said of the back-to-back events in June where Tseng's confidence visibly began to lag.
"The way the LPGA was set up, if you weren't driving the ball perfectly straight, you were going to make bogeys. And she didn't drive it well. It wasn't the same golf course they had played the year before."
Indeed, Tseng won the LPGA Championship in 2011, one of her seven victories last year. When she started 2012 so well, it seemed as if nothing was going to slow her down.
Now that something has, she's had to reflect more and ask for advice, including from Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam, who has befriended Tseng.
"I talked to her last week, and she asked me, 'Do you think if you win the U.S. Open, it will change your life?'" Tseng said. "And I was like, 'No, being world No. 1 has already changed my life.'
"That's why I should not put so much pressure on myself. I know this [tournament] is very special, but if I don't win this year, there are still so many years I have a chance to win."
There's a balance that must be maintained, though, with that philosophy: Tseng should have a long, long time left to play competitive golf, and this recent stretch may be little more than a brief downward blip that even the greatest players go through.
But she also has to maintain an edge to go after majors with the same gusto she has previously in her young career.
"I think to be 'tough' means you look relaxed," Tseng said of the appearance of those who never seem to be rattled. "So you have to be tough to win tournaments. But you don't want to be so tough on yourself."