Who plays with more joy today than Yani Tseng?
You can see it in her face even amid cut-throat competition.
The maddening game frustrates her at times, as it does all players, but nobody shows you how much they love playing it more. Nobody smiles more between shots. Whether she’s sharing a good-natured wisecrack with a fellow competitor, or good-humored bantering with her caddie, Tseng looks happier to be No. 1 than any man or woman since world rankings were conceived.
She carries the burden of being the best so effortlessly.
“Yani’s a very outgoing personality,” says Gary Gilchrist, her coach. “She’s a very happy person. She’s happy off the golf course, and I think it helps her on the course. She enjoys her life.”
It’s just another fact to appreciate in this star’s rocket-like ascent in the game.
The joy sets her apart, because if Tseng betrayed any bitterness, if she showed some exasperation with her lot in sport’s larger picture, you could understand. Though she’s won more majors (5) by age 22 than any man or woman in the history of the game, though she’s been No. 1 in the Rolex rankings for 36 consecutive weeks, though she has won nine times around the world this season and won four of the last eight major championships, she doesn’t get the full measure of attention she deserves.
Tseng doesn’t grace the cover of many magazines, doesn’t lead many TV sports highlight shows, isn’t the featured center piece on many big-time daily newspaper sports sections. She isn’t fully appreciated for the force she’s become.
But that’s what make this week so marvelous for the folks who love Tseng most.
With Taiwan hosting an LPGA event for the first time, Tseng returns to her homeland a triumphant hero.
All the adulation Tseng has been deprived, it comes flooding her way at the Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship.
“People in Taiwan love Yani,” says Ernie Huang, Tseng’s mentor, friend and quasi-agent. “She’s very popular. She’s like a rock star there.”
The joy Tseng plays with, it’s Taiwan’s joy this week. They’re reveling in the fact that their homeland has nurtured the world’s best.
Tseng will literally tower over the republic Tuesday when she’s featured in a news conference scheduled on the top floor of the Taipei 101 skyscraper in downtown Taipei. It was the tallest building in the world until Khalifa Tower opened in Dubai last year.
Even when she’s sleeping at the Sunrise Golf & Country Club’s resort, Tseng will feel the pampering of her people. She’s the guest of honor in a special 264 square-meter suite renovated specially for her at a cost of $2 million New Taiwan dollars ($65,380 U.S. dollars).
“I’m always happy about going home, but this is going to be very, very special,” Tseng told GolfChannel.com. “We’ve been working for two years to bring an LPGA event to Taiwan. Golf isn’t as popular as it is in Japan or Korea, but we’re seeing more interest in the game now. I’m just hoping it is going to be a great memory for all the LPGA players.”
Tseng, who has a home in Orlando, Fla., grew up in Taiwan 30 minutes away from the Sunrise Golf & Country Club. Though she learned to play at the driving range her father owned, she trained at Sunrise as a teenager.
Her parents, father Mao Hsin and mother Yu-Yun Yang, will be following her this week. She has an older brother and younger sister and lots of other family and friends back home waiting to celebrate her return.
“And my grandmother will finally get to see me play in an LPGA tournament,” Tseng said. “She’s 92 years old, and I believe she will be there to see me play. She’s only been able to watch me on TV, so it’s going to be very special.”
Taiwan’s where Tseng was groomed to be a world champion, but Huang will tell you she had to leave her beloved homeland to learn what it would take to be the world’s best. Huang, a retired research scientist from Taiwan who moved to San Diego almost 40 years ago, met Tseng when she was 12. Huang loved the game and sponsored Taiwan youth looking to come to the United States to compete at the highest levels.
At 13, Tseng made one of those trips to the United States with Huang and won the Callaway Junior World Championship. That summer, Huang took Tseng and other juniors to see the U.S. Women’s Open when Juli Inkster outdueled Annika Sorenstam at Prairie Dunes in Kansas.
“Yani said she thought she was ready to compete against these girls,” Huang said.
The following summer, Huang brought Tseng back to give her a chance in the U.S. Women’s Amateur. As a 14-year-old, Tseng lost in the second round against an older and more seasoned Paula Creamer in a match that went to the final hole at Philadelphia Country Club.
When Tseng left Huang late that summer to return to Taiwan, she made him a special thank you card. Scrawled around her words were two drawings she painstakingly fashioned, a drawing of the U.S. Women’s Amateur trophy and the U.S. Women’s Open trophy.
“She said she was going to win those trophies, and she also said, `I am the world No. 1,’” Huang said. “I still have that card.”
The following summer, Huang watched Tseng at 15 score her biggest triumph to that date, defeating Michelle Wie in the final to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship.
Huang marvels at how Tseng’s claimed and embraced the success she craved as a teenager. He’ll be in Taiwan this week eager to see the country’s affection poured out on Tseng.
“There will be some pressure on Yani because all eyes will be upon her,” Huang said. “Everyone’s going to want a piece of her, and it’s going to be a challenge getting her rest, but she’s matured so much, I think she can certainly deal with this.”
Gilchrist believes Tseng understands the big picture the week presents.
“Yani’s priority this week should be to enjoy herself, enjoy playing in front of her home crowd and not be thinking that she has to play well,” Gilchrist said. “If she doesn’t win, she’ll still be No. 1 in the world. She needs to embrace that. She’s going to be very, very distracted the entire week, but these distractions should be a plus. She needs to enjoy the moment, embrace the crowds. Because in Taiwan, they’re going to love her whether she wins or not. She has nothing to prove.”
Tseng is bound to find the joy in that.