PHOENIX – This feels inevitable now.
You could see it in Yani Tseng’s face here Friday after she slid down near the cutline scraping together an even-par 72 in the second round of the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup. You could hear it in her voice after she watched Stacy Lewis mount a charge into contention in a bid to win back-to-back events.
Tseng is resigned to the fact that she is probably going to lose the Rolex world No. 1 ranking, and she’s going to lose it soon. She even sounds as if she will welcome being free of it.
“It’s OK,” Tseng said. “It will be a good release for me.”
Lewis put herself in position Friday to end Tseng’s 109-week run at No. 1 as early as this Sunday. Lewis can take the top spot in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings for the first time if she wins this weekend and Tseng finishes third or worse.
With a 7-under-par 65 Friday, Lewis climbed to third on the leaderboard, four shots behind red-hot Jee Young Lee, who followed a 65 with a 64. Lewis impressively made her charge playing alongside Tseng.
Even Lewis senses Tseng’s weariness under what has become a heavy crown.
“I think Yani has put a lot of pressure on herself,” Lewis said. “I think she has taken the expectations up another level, and I definitely think the state she is at right now with her game, I think if she did lose it, I think she would start to play better. I don’t know if I can ever imagine myself doing that.”
While Tseng, 23, speaks of the burden the No. 1 ranking has become, Lewis, 28, speaks openly of wanting to embrace all that would go with the No. 1 ranking.
“If I ever get to No. 1, I'm going to enjoy it, because I never as a kid dreamed of being in that position,” Lewis said. “I'm not going to take it for granted.”
To be clear, Tseng isn’t quitting on anything. More than anything, she just seems to need a break from all that comes with being No. 1, a chance to shed the weight of it and play free again.
When Tseng won the Kia Classic last March, it marked her 15th worldwide title in 15 months. She hasn’t won anything in the last 51 weeks. Late last spring, Tseng began to lose her edge. She struggled through 12 consecutive rounds in the summer without breaking par, and then she missed back-to-back cuts for the first time in her LPGA career.
Though she had nagging aches and pains, there were no debilitating injuries behind her slip in form. There were no major swing flaws. Mostly, she said, there was internal pressure.
Through it all, Tseng was looking over her shoulder, worrying about her weakening hold on No. 1 and who was closing in on her. She also spent too much time fretting over what media and fans were saying. She confessed all of this just this past winter.
“It just drove me crazy,” Tseng told Golfchannel.com last week.
Rising to dominance, Tseng made an impression with how she played with such joy. World No. 2 Na Yeon Choi once said Tseng’s unwavering smile was unnerving. Tseng lost that last year.
“I kept telling myself to smile more, but I just couldn’t do it,” Tseng said. “It’s the first time I realized how hard it can be to smile. Before I was No. 1, and when I became No. 1, I would tell myself to smile, and I would smile. Last year, it was so hard. I would tell myself to smile, and it looked like a fake smile, like it wasn’t really coming from inside.”
So, before this new season began, Tseng resolved not to worry about the world rankings anymore.
“I just want to play like a child again,” Tseng said. “I lost that enjoyment of playing last year.”
Tseng believes when she finds her smile and the fun in her game, the rest will come back, too.
“I’m still young,” Tseng said. “I still have so many years I’m going to be on tour. If I lose [No. 1] this week, I can always get it back. I have confidence I can get back to world No. 1.”
Lewis would like nothing better than to relieve Tseng of her burden this weekend.