Yani Tseng Showing Best Signs Yet Of Emerging From Deep Slump

Yani Tseng seemed to enjoy herself on the golf course at Alabama, and she didn't wilt when she found herself in contention. AP Photo/Rick Osentoski

Tiger Woods isn't the only great golfer trying to solve the riddle of a hard sport he once made seem so easy.

Yani Tseng is also trying to manufacture a turnaround, and over the weekend in Alabama, at a tournament sponsored by a tire company, her comeback from a mysterious fall from the top gained some important traction.

Tseng didn't win the Yokohama Tire LPGA Classic, but by finishing in a tie for second, she made her largest stride yet toward rediscovering the skills that shot her to the zenith of the women's game.

She won five major championships by age 22 -- a quicker haul of titles that matter than most anyone, male or female. She had 15 LPGA victories by 23. She was No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings for 109 weeks.

Then the fun seemed to go away, and the successes went with it. Tseng might have bought Annika Sorenstam's former house and displayed her trophies where Sorenstam's once sat, but instead of thriving in her perch, being No. 1 became a yoke of pressure.

Tseng hasn't won an LPGA event since the Kia Classic in March 2012. In the last dozen majors -- stages that she used to rule -- she has missed nine cuts.

Because Tseng doesn't have the kind of public profile Woods does -- except perhaps in her native Taiwan -- every disappointing round hasn't been widely chronicled. She has suffered largely in silence and, with the help of instructor Claude Harmon III and sport psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella, attempted to resurrect her game just as quietly.

"20 birdies, 1 eagle, 6 bogeys and a chance to win this week for @YaniTseng. Hard work starting to pay off!" Harmon tweeted Sunday.

Tseng was buoyed during the first round last week when fellow competitor Stacy Lewis told her that her game and demeanor recalled her dominant days. "I'm just so happy that she told me that," Tseng told reporters. "For sure it gave me some confidence. I just want to keep playing as happy Yani and just enjoy it."

For her peers, Tseng's competitive decline has to be a cautionary tale. If it could happen to someone with fluid power, a good putting touch and the ability to thrive on the biggest occasions, it could happen to anyone.

Tseng had -- and has -- one of the most dynamic games on the LPGA Tour. It was good to see it in close-to-winning form in Prattville, Alabama. She shot a final-round 67, making birdies on three of her last six holes. Tseng came tantalizingly close to sinking birdie putts on Nos. 17 and 18, either of which would have earned a playoff with Kris Tamulis, who won her first LPGA title.

Tseng's 10-foot birdie putt on the 17th, a big breaker from left to right, narrowly missed on the high side. Her attempt on the par-4 18th from about the same distance was even more of a heartbreaker, lipping out after a perfect drive and fine approach.

"I didn't think it was going to lip out," Tseng said. "I don't know why that didn't go in. I made a good putt and felt, 'Boy, it's going in.' I did my best. Sometimes, you need a little luck to win a tournament too."

The best news for Tseng might not have been what was on her scorecard but what was on her face -- a smile as she played her way into contention for the first time in a long time. "I feel like I'm finally getting very comfortable on the course and enjoying the golf again," she said.

Tseng is only 26, about six months younger than Inbee Park, who has become the LPGA's clutch major player as Tseng lost her form. While Tseng will tee off at next week's Evian Championship with a rare and much-needed bit of momentum, Park will be the favorite. But Tseng is coming off a tie for 13th at the Ricoh Women's British Open, her best finish in a major since she was third at the 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship, right before her game began to inexplicably decline.

That Tseng got herself into position to stroke putts that mattered on the last couple of holes in Alabama was important. That she hit good putts that just didn't drop might be even bigger. That she appeared to be relishing the opportunity was the best sign of all.

"Win, lose or draw, she has answered a lot of questions this week," Golf Channel's Jerry Foltz said of Tseng during the final nine Sunday.

It was progress for the golfer who had dropped as low as 90th in the Rolex Rankings and is 61st now. She had also tied for second in the Honda LPGA Thailand in February. But Tseng seems to know that droughts need to be broken up by more than one sudden rain before they're considered over.

"I'm just very happy my game's really coming back," Tseng said in Alabama. "I'm really happy to be playing, and I just want to win. But it doesn't matter, it will come. It doesn't matter if it's this week or next week or next year. I will try to stay patient as much as I can and stay positive."