When Tseng pulled into the parking lot this week for the season-ending CME Group Titleholders, she couldn’t help noticing Lewis was assigned the spot right next to hers.
When Lewis won the Mizuno Classic in Japan two weeks ago to virtually clinch Rolex Player of the Year honors, Tseng played two rounds with Lewis.
The No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world are getting closer in ranking points every week.
Good naturedly, Tseng reminded the media Wednesday that she’s still No. 1.
“Don’t forget about that,” Tseng said. “I can still have a happy ending.”
That’s the thing about Tseng’s year. Her reign as No. 1 has not been as much fun as it ought to be. She hasn’t been as happy as she believes she should have been, but she’s learning to remedy that.
“The last three or four months, I was really trying too hard and putting too much pressure on myself,” Tseng said. “I second guessed myself whether I can still win a tournament. I was struggling, and I wasn’t very happy.”
Tseng’s run at No. 1 has reached 91 consecutive weeks, but the longer she carries the top ranking, the more she has felt its burdens. She’s learning to carry it better. She’s learning to smile even when she’s struggling. She calls this year a learning experience.
“Everybody wants to be No. 1, but no one understands how hard it would be to be No. 1,” Tseng said. “Now I know why Lorena [Ochoa] and Annika [Sorenstam] retired, because it’s very hard.”
Tseng’s lead in the Rolex World Rankings is still significant, but it’s shrinking rapidly.
Tseng has 12.24 average world-ranking points. Seven months ago, Lewis was a whopping 12.15 average points behind Tseng. Today, Lewis is 2.92 average points behind.
How close is Lewis to catching Tseng? Lewis won’t be able to overtake Tseng with a victory this week, and it isn’t likely she could give herself a chance until about a month into next season. A win against a strong field typically nets a player .7 of a point.
This much is clear, though. Lewis wants the No. 1 ranking.
“That’s one of the things I am going to pay attention to going into next year,” Lewis said. “That’s been one of the goals this year, to chip away at her lead and narrow that gap. That’s the next goal for me, to be No. 1 in the world, but you have to win tournaments, you have to be in contention. Being No. 1 is the result of a lot of hard work, and I just have to keep working hard.”
While Tseng is still No. 1 in the world, Lewis has clearly been the best player in the world over the last six months.
“A lot of the American players, you look at Lexi and Michelle, there’s always this hype in the beginning, and all the pressure, things like that I didn’t have,” Lewis said. “I didn’t have all the expectations everyone else had, and I think that’s really helped me get to where I am.”
Lewis believes she’s ready to handle the hype that comes with being regarded as the game’s best player.
“There’s a lot of expectations and a lot of pressure there,” Lewis said. “If there’s anything I’ve learned this year, it’s that when there’s more pressure on, you’ve just got to go have fun.
“Looking into next year, I want to keep enjoying this stuff. When it becomes pressure and a burden, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”
Hall of Famer Judy Rankin, a Golf Channel analyst, believes seeing Tseng and Lewis at their best together in a battle for No. 1 would be good for the women’s game.
“We need that,” Rankin said.
Tseng is playing for the sixth consecutive week. It’s a lot of golf, but she believes she’s on the cusp of something good again.
“Everything’s getting better,” Tseng said. “I feel I’m in good position. I feel I have a chance to win a tournament.”
Tseng has been candid about her summer slump, how she has struggled with the expectations that come with being No. 1, this debilitating sense that anything less than a victory is a failure. The openness seems to be cathartic, but it’s also made her look vulnerable.
“I always check the Internet, for what the talk is about me,” Tseng said. “It gets in my mind, really. It kind of hurts a little bit.”
Gary Gilchrist, Tseng’s coach, took a trip to Malaysia last month to spend extended time with Tseng.
“I think she’s getting her priorities right,” Gilchrist said. “Instead of worrying about winning tournaments, she’s getting back to the basics. She’s trying to enjoy herself and focus on the process.”
Tseng opened this year winning three times, but she struggled when summer arrived. She missed back-to-back cuts, went 12 consecutive rounds without breaking par and didn’t record a top-10 finish in five months.
While she responded quickly to Gilchrist’s visit with a pair of third-place finishes and a fourth-place finish on the fall Asian swing, she’s still looking for her first victory in almost eight months.
“I give Yani a lot of credit for the way she’s conducted herself through this,” Rankin said. “I give her a lot of credit for the way she has fought through it.”
If Lewis keeps coming on, Tseng’s fight to remain No. 1 might be just beginning.
Watch live coverage of the CME Group Titleholders exclusively on Golf Channel, 1:30-4PM ET, Thursday-Sunday.