Rejuvenated Yani Tseng sinks U.S.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Yani Tseng was having flashbacks here Thursday, all of a good kind. Remember when she was No. 1 in the world, the LPGA's most dominant player? Remember when she won the Women's British Open in back-to-back years, the latter in 2011 being her fifth career major?
It wasn't long ago, yet it can seem like a distant memory and that Tseng is yesterday's champion, a name from the past.
The fact that it's like this when she's still only 25 tells you two things: That several other LPGA players have filled the spotlight, and that Tseng's game fell off a cliff.
My mind was so calm. I've been feeling good on my putting for the whole week. I told myself, 'Look at the ball, then just putt it. Don't worry about anything.' And I did it."Yani Tseng
But here she was at the International Crown, the LPGA's new team event that started Thursday, staring at a putt on No. 18 that would beat the U.S. team and put Taiwan atop the first-day standings.
In 2010 or '11, you would have fully expected Tseng to roll that in like it was nothing. In the pressure moments, she never appeared to be nervous.
But starting in the summer of 2012, things began to change. It was almost as if Tseng had been dancing around happily on a tightrope, making the difficult look easy, but then made the mistake of looking down.
She won 13 titles between April 2010 and April 2012 but has not won anything since. Once the No. 1 player in the world for 109 weeks, she is now ranked 53rd. She's missed five cuts this season, including at the recent Women's British Open.
So when the Yani of 2014 faced such a big putt Thursday, how did she handle it?
"My mind was so calm," she said. "I've been feeling good on my putting for the whole week. I told myself, 'Look at the ball, then just putt it. Don't worry about anything.' And I did it."
That birdie gave Tseng and partner Phoebe Yao a 1-up victory over the U.S. team of Stacy Lewis and Lexi Thompson. It meant Taiwan -- the No. 8 seed among the eight teams here -- led the points standings with 4 after the first day. Team USA, on the other hand, was shut out.
"Actually, I don't feel much pressure," Tseng said of her mindset all day. "I mean, to beat the United States, it's hard to imagine that."
It shouldn't have been, though. Lewis is currently ranked No. 1, and Thompson is No. 5, but Tseng has more major victories than those two put together. Tseng is so talented that she should feel as if she could beat any duo, regardless of whom she's paired with.
But that's the vexing thing about sports and confidence, isn't it? Australia's Karrie Webb, who spent some time at No. 1 in her career, has empathy for Tseng.
"I probably haven't had the highs and the lows like Yani," said Webb, who won her match Thursday with young teammate Minjee Lee. "But I've had some times in my career where I haven't had a lot of self-confidence out there, even when I really should have.
"I think when [Yani] was No. 1 in the world, she didn't really enjoy that position as much. She enjoyed the good golf, but there was a lot of pressure that came along with it, a lot of responsibility."
Webb felt that weight when she was in the top spot and didn't like it.
"I found myself at one point in my career just wanting to be No. 2," Webb said. "I think when you don't set your sights to be as good as you can be, you're holding yourself back. That's when the self-doubt starts to occur."
That's certainly affected Tseng, who has explained her lengthy slump as being mental, not physical. But this team event already seems to have rejuvenated her. She was emotional on the first tee and then used the adrenaline to her advantage. She nearly drove the green, ending up with a birdie to give Taiwan an early lead. While the Americans were able to square the match, they were never able to take the lead.
And when Tseng gave herself the birdie chance on No. 18, Lewis and Thompson looked at each other with some resignation and said, "She's going to make this." It was Tseng's fourth birdie of the day.
"I wouldn't say it's the Yani of old," Lewis said. "She didn't hit it perfect. But she just made putts. I think the Yani of a couple of years ago hit it a lot better, a lot higher. Today, a lot of her drives were line drives.
"I remember when she was winning all those tournaments, she hit it like Lexi does now. Really high, really far. So I think she has to really get back to where she was."
Give Lewis credit for a real, nuanced answer, not just a trite, "Looks like the old Yani is back." But there were moments when it seemed as if the "old Yani" -- a younger, more carefree player -- showed up Thursday.
The team aspect helped. Tseng couldn't stop smiling on the first tee, and that cheerful expression stuck around for most of the day.
"It's much more motivation than playing for myself," she said of competing for Taiwan, which is referred to as "Chinese Taipei" in this and many other international competitions.
That's a concession to China, which allows Taiwan to operate as its own nation yet doesn't acknowledge it as a separate country, as convoluted as that is. Back when Tseng was on top of the women's golf world, it was reported that a Chinese business tried to "recruit" her, offering her several million dollars and other perks if she would change her nationality to Chinese. She refused.
Tseng is proud to be representing her homeland, and she's hoping all the good vibes she already has felt will not just continue at the International Crown, but for the rest of 2014.
"I just told myself to walk like a champ today," she said. "I want to have my chin up and smile all the way. I actually did it."