RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Yani Tseng faced a formidable test before she even teed off at the Kia Classic last week.
Her swing coach saw the challenge when he first spotted Tseng’s caddie at Industry Hills.
The caddie couldn’t have stood out more if he were wearing a bulls-eye.
“They threw this green bib on him that identifies Yani as the Rolex Women’s No. 1-ranked player,” Gary Gilchrist said. “I think that’s the biggest difference for her this year. It’s that now she’s the No. 1 player in the world, so there are a lot more expectations on her. My biggest goal is for her to feel comfortable and confident with her game in that role.”
Tseng’s caddie, Jason Hamilton, won’t wear the Rolex No. 1 bib this week. Nobody will. The Kraft Nabisco caddies all wear white bibs, but it doesn’t matter. Players know Tseng’s the player to beat.
The Dinah Shore Tournament Course marks the grandest stage Tseng’s taken since she claimed the No. 1 ranking seven weeks ago.
“I’m feeling more relaxed about it,” said Tseng, who is Taiwanese but makes her home in Orlando, Fla. “I’m enjoying this and having fun with it and not putting too much pressure on myself.”
Tseng plays with a disarming smile. She isn’t an intimidating figure.
At 5 feet 6, she’s sturdy and strong, but she doesn’t look like she could overpower a golf course.
Well, until you see her launch one of her rockets.
Few women who hit the ball as long as Tseng play out of the fairway as consistently as she has this season.
The combination of power and control is a large factor in why Tseng’s already won four times around the world this season and is favored to successfully defend her Kraft Nabisco title.
“Yani is very, very long,” says Karrie Webb, who has won two of the four LPGA events staged this year. “I’ve played with her quite a few rounds already this year, and I think one of the reasons she’s playing so well early is she’s hitting it long and straight. She’s really not hitting too many wild tee shots, which is setting up relatively simple irons shots.
“When she gets her putter going, those are the weeks she really dominates.”
Tseng is becoming a dominant player on the game’s most important stages. She’s won two of the last four majors in women’s golf, three of the last 11.
“She’s done some amazing things at a very young age,” 14-time LPGA winner Cristie Kerr said.
Amazing? Well, consider this: Tseng’s won more majors at 22 than Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods or Bobby Jones did at the same age. And she could make it four major championship triumphs this week, which would be more majors than Nancy Lopez won her entire career.
Tseng’s ability to hit fairways will be key this week.
Can she continue to hit her driver with impunity, shrink the course and keep her power advantage? Tseng was the 10th longest driver on the LPGA last year, averaging 262 yards per drive.
Webb’s observation that Tseng is hitting more fairways while continuing to overpower courses is notable. Gilchrist said Tseng’s developed the ability to drive with power or scale back and drive for control.
“It’s the same swing, she just grips down, and it’s more controlled, where you aren’t looking to hit it a long way,” Gilchrist said. “More like a stinger.”
That swing could prove a valuable weapon at the Dinah Shore course, where the rough’s penal and the firm, fast greens make having a short iron from the fairway a huge advantage.
The confidence of having won here also helps Tseng. She relished seeing her plaque on the Walk of Champions along “Poppie’s Pond” at the 18th, where she took the victor’s plunge last year.
“It was so exciting,” Tseng said of her return. “I love this course.
“I feel really confident right now.”
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell