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.