Tseng searching for fun and old Yani in 2016

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2016, 5:12 pm

Yani Tseng just wants to feel comfortable on the golf course again.

It used to be her playground, a place she felt free and untethered, where playing with youthful abandon from real worldly cares was the thing.

Some time after she gained the world No. 1 ranking, her playground changed. It became a workplace, a factory where she felt as if she were expected to produce a quota of great shots with late Sunday deadlines always pressing in on her.

Yes, Tseng wants to break out of her nearly four-year LPGA winless spell. She wants to hoist a trophy again. She wants to be Rolex Player of the Year again and make the Hall of Fame, but mostly she wants to feel untethered again, free to enjoy the game the way she did before greatness changed everything.

Tseng, who turns 27 on Saturday, wants her playground back.

That’s what this year is about, what her start in next week’s season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic is all about.

“The most encouraging thing about last year was that I started feeling comfortable,” Tseng told GolfChannel.com about the flashes of form that got her into contention again last season. “That’s my goal this year. I want to get comfortable on the golf course again, comfortable on the driving range again. I was playing afraid before. I want to feel like I’m enjoying the game again.”

When Tseng tees it up at the Ocean Club on Paradise Island next week, she’ll be looking to build on momentum she created late last year, when she finished T-2, 5th and T-2 over a four-tournament run. She started last year having plummeted to No. 90 in the Rolex rankings, but she began climbing back with the new team she built around her. She starts this year No. 37 in the world.

“I’m really happy with the team I have now,” Tseng said. “I feel like I’m ready for 2016.”

After her 109-week reign as Rolex world No. 1 ended early in 2013, Tseng’s slump sent her in a frustrating search for help. She believed a lot of her troubles were in her head. With a personality eager to please, she felt a debilitating burden trying to live up to her status as the first man or woman to win five major championships by the age of 22. She felt guilt disappointing people. And she got lost in her desperate search for something to spark the return of form that made her so dominant, bouncing from one idea to another. She began playing less with the imagination that got her to No. 1 and more with a technical checklist.

Tseng asked Butch Harmon for help with that at the beginning of last year, and he steered her to his son, Claude. Tseng likes the work she has been doing with Claude since they connected 12 months ago.

“The worse players play, the more technical they can become, because they’re working on a lot of different things,” Harmon said. “My job was just uncluttering Yani’s brain. I said, ‘Hey, let’s stick to one game plan for 365 days and not bounce around.’”

There’s something symbiotic about the relationship between a golfer’s swing and confidence. When either one’s suffering, so is the other.

When Tseng won 12 times around the world in 2011, her driver was like Thor’s hammer. She dominated with it, overpowering the opposition with an intimidating, attacking style. “I still like to grip it and rip it,” Tseng said. When she lost confidence in her driver, she lost confidence in her entire game.

As Tseng slumped, she became unpredictably wayward, with her misses becoming more wild, both left and right. Her big misses embarrassed her, with too many shots sailing out of bounds or into hazards. She began piling up uncharacteristically big numbers, and that embarrassed her, too.

“The last couple years my driver has been all over the place,” Tseng said. “I was playing so badly and didn’t feel like I had the confidence to be on the course.”

Even at her best, Tseng never hit a lot of fairways, but she never missed them as wildly as she was in her slump.

“It’s fun to make birdies from the woods, but you’ve got to get your drive in play,” Tseng said. “I feel like hitting the driver well is really important to me. I feel like once my driver gets better, everything else will get better. I’m trying to make my misses smaller.”

Harmon began changing Tseng’s long swing last year. He tightened it up, shortening her backswing, which used to reach well past parallel. He also changed her takeaway. She was pulling the club back outside the line with the face closed. He got her taking it back down the line with her clubface in a more classic, square position.

Taming her driver looms as a key to Tseng’s bid to win her first LPGA title since taking the Kia Classic in March of 2012. That’s improving but remains a work in progress.

“I imagine when she drives the ball well, it bleeds into the rest of her game,” Harmon said. “We’ve tried to give her a little more control and a little more consistency. Distance isn’t an issue for Yani. If she can hit maybe three or four more fairways a round, it will give her more chances with her irons.”

Tseng is trying to play freely again, to attack again within her new swing.

“I’m trying to get my imagination back,” Tseng said. “I feel like if I can see the shot, I can hit it.”

Tseng was the first to say a lot of her woes were psychological. She believes the team she assembled last year is clearing her head to see her playground again. She started working with Harmon at the start of last season, also adding David Donatucci as her trainer, Bob Rotella as her mental coach and Scott Lubin as her caddie, a former caddie for Jack Nicklaus. Her team is all down in the Jupiter area in South Florida, a nearly three-hour drive from Tseng’s home in Lake Nona in Orlando.

“I’m on the Turnpike a lot,” Tseng said.

Like Harmon, Rotella is helping Tseng simplify her focus.

“Yani said she felt like when she was winning everything, she didn’t know a whole lot about golf,” Rotella said. “She was just picturing a shot and ripping it. She was just having fun, and she said: ‘They just kept handing me trophies and checks, and then when everyone started telling me how much potential I had, it started to change everything.’ She said she started getting more serious, trying to do everything perfectly. And then she started feeling pressure, and she got lost.”

With a head full of demon doubts steering her every which way ...

“I got to where I was afraid of hitting the ball in the rough,” Tseng said. “Bob told me being afraid of hitting it in the rough is worse than actually hitting it in the rough. I also got to where I was feeling like I was going to be happy just making the cut. He said if you don’t have a chance to win, who cares if you make the cut. The way he thinks, it helps me a lot. I’m trying to get my confidence back, and he’s helping me with that.”

So is Harmon. They’ve been a tag team working on Tseng’s confidence.

“It doesn’t matter how many tournaments and majors you’ve won, when you play badly, you lose your confidence,” Harmon said. “Confidence is such an important thing for players. You want her to get back to believing what a great player she is. She has to believe she’s getting back there. I want her to get her swagger back, some cockiness, but not in a disrespectful way, just that belief that she can beat everyone in the field when she shows up. Jordan Spieth has that right now. So does Lydia Ko. The best players in the world believe they are the best players in the world.”

They’re trying to get Yani to remember she’s still Yani. She’s at the doorstep of the LPGA Hall of Fame with 23 points, just four short of qualifying.

“She had one of the greatest years ever [in 2011], and I think she got to where she thought she had to hit every shot perfectly to live up to that year,” Rotella said. “She thought that’s what people expected of her. I told her, ‘If that’s what people expect, they don’t understand golf. You have to let go of all that junk. A lot of it is really getting back to believing in yourself, taking the pressure off and playing the game. You made a lot of putts and you got the ball in the hole because you were basically just living in the moment.’

“Yani is a joy to be around. She’s about as open and honest as you can be when we talk about stuff. When you’re like that, you’ve got a chance of making progress. She’s made a lot. I think she has a good, clear picture of what she wants to do. Now it’s just a matter of throwing away the fear and doubt and just going out and playing golf.”

It’s a matter of turning her workplace back into her playground.

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Ortiz takes Web.com Tour clubhouse lead in Bahamas

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 16, 2018, 2:19 am

Former Web.com Tour Player of the Year Carlos Ortiz shot a bogey-free, 4-under-par 68 Monday to take the clubhouse lead in The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay.

Four other players - Lee McCoy, Brandon Matthews, Sung Jae Im and Mark Anderson - were still on the course and tied with Ortiz at 6-under 210 when third-round play was suspended by darkness at 5:32 p.m. local time. It is scheduled to resume at 7:15 a.m. Tuesday.

Ortiz, a 26-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, is in search of his fourth Web.com Tour victory. In 2014, the former University of North Texas standout earned a three-win promotion on his way to being voted Web.com Tour Player of the Year.

McCoy, a 23-year-old from Dunedin, Fla., is looking to become the first player to earn medalist honors at Q-School and then win the opening event of the season.

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Randall's Rant: Can we please have some rivalries?

By Randall MellJanuary 16, 2018, 12:00 am

Memo to the golf gods:

If you haven’t finalized the fates of today’s stars for the new year, could we get you to deliver what the game has lacked for so long?

Can we get a real, honest-to-goodness rivalry?

It’s been more than two decades since the sport has been witness to one.

With world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship this week, an early-season showdown would percolate hope that this year might be all about rivalries.

It seems as if the stars are finally aligned to make up for our long drought of rivalries, of the recurring clashes you have so sparingly granted through the game’s history.

We’re blessed in a new era of plenty, with so many young stars blossoming, and with Tiger Woods offering hope he may be poised for a comeback. With Johnson, McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler among today’s dynamic cast, the possibility these titans will time their runs together on the back nine of Sundays in majors excites.

We haven’t seen a real rivalry since Greg Norman and Nick Faldo sparred in the late '80s and early '90s.

Woods vs. Phil Mickelson didn’t really count. While Lefty will be remembered for carving out a Hall of Fame career in the Tiger era, with 33 victories, 16 of them with Tiger in the field, five of them major championships, we get that Tiger had no rival, not in the most historic sense.

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Phil never reached No. 1, was never named PGA Tour Player of the Year, never won a money title and never dueled with Woods on Sunday on the back nine of a major with the title on the line.  Still, it doesn’t diminish his standing as the best player not named Tiger Woods over the last 20 years. It’s a feat so noteworthy it makes him one of the game’s all-time greats.

We’ve been waiting for an honest-to-goodness rivalry since Faldo and Norman took turns ruling at world No. 1 and dueling in big events, including the back nine of multiple majors. 

In the '70s, we had Nicklaus-Watson. In the '60s, it was Nicklaus-Palmer. In the '40s and '50s, it was Hogan, Snead and Nelson in a triumvirate mix, and in the '20s and '30s we had Hagen and Sarazen.

While dominance is the magic ingredient that can break a sport out of its niche, a dynamic rivalry is the next best elixir.

Dustin Johnson looks capable of dominating today’s game, but there’s so much proven major championship talent on his heels. It’s hard to imagine him consistently fending off all these challengers, but it’s the fending that would captivate us.

Johnson vs. McIlroy would be a fireworks show. So would Johnson vs. Thomas, or Thomas vs. Day or McIlroy vs. Rahm or Fowler vs. Koepka ... or any of those combinations.

Spieth is a wild card that intrigues.

While he’s not a short hitter, he isn’t the power player these other guys are, but his iron game, short game, putter and moxie combine to make him the most compelling challenger of all. His resolve, resilience and resourcefulness in the final round of his British Open victory at Royal Birkdale make him the most interesting amalgam of skill since Lee Trevino.

Woods vs. any of them? Well, if we get that, we promise never to ask for anything more.

So, if that cosmic calendar up there isn’t filled, how about it? How about a year of rivalries to remember?

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McIlroy: 2018 may be my busiest season ever

By Will GrayJanuary 15, 2018, 6:28 pm

With his return to competition just days away, Rory McIlroy believes that the 2018 season may be the most action packed of his pro career.

The 28-year-old has not teed it up since the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in early October, a hiatus he will end at this week's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. It will be the start of a busy spring for the Ulsterman, who will also play next week in Dubai before a run of six PGA Tour events leading up to the Masters.

Speaking to the U.K.'s Telegraph, McIlroy confirmed that he will also make a return trip to the British Masters in October and plans to remain busy over the next 12 months.

"I might play more times this year than any before. I played 28 times in 2008 and I'm on track to beat that," McIlroy said. "I could get to 30 (events), depending on where I'm placed in the Race to Dubai. But I'll see."

McIlroy's ambitious plan comes in the wake of a frustrating 2017 campaign, when he injured his ribs in his first start and twice missed chunks of time in an effort to recover. He failed to win a worldwide event and finished the year ranked outside the top 10, both of which had not happened since 2008.

But having had more than three months to get his body and swing in shape, McIlroy is optimistic heading into the first of what he hopes will be eight starts in the 12 weeks before he drives down Magnolia Lane.

"I've worked hard on my short game and I'm probably feeling better with the putter than I ever have," McIlroy said. "I've had a lot of time to concentrate on everything and it all feels very good and a long way down the road."

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What's in the Bag: Sony Open winner Kizzire

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 15, 2018, 6:05 pm

Patton Kizzire earned his second PGA Tour victory by winning a six-hole playoff at the Sony Open in Hawaii. Take a look inside his bag.

Driver: Titleist 917D3 (10.5 degrees), with Fujikura Atmos Black 6 X shaft

Fairway Wood: Titleist 917F2 (16.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Blue 95 TX shaft

Hybrid: Titleist 913H (19 degrees), with UST Mamiya AXIV Core 100 Hybrid shaft

Irons: Titleist 718 T-MB (4), 718 CB (5-6), 718 MB (7-9), with True Temper Dynamic Gold X100 shafts

Wedges: Titleist SM7 prototype (47, 52, 56, 60 degrees), with True Temper Dynamic Gold X100 shafts

Putter: Scotty Cameron GoLo Tour prototype

Ball: Titleist Pro V1x