Yani Tseng hopes a return to the Royal Birkdale Golf Club this week for the Women’s British Open will be just what she needs to rekindle some fire in her game.
Tseng, a 25-year-old from Taiwan, won the British Open in 2010 at Royal Birkdale and defended the title the next year at Carnoustie in Scotland.
But the momentum she experienced in 2010 and 2011, when she rose to No. 1 in the world, has since slammed to a halt. Tseng enters the LPGA Tour’s third major championship this week ranked No. 48 in the world. She has had two top-10 finishes this year, but she has also missed four tournament cuts, including one at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, a major that she won in 2010.
After 15 LPGA victories in seven seasons, career earnings of nearly $10-million and a streak of 109 weeks with the No. 1 ranking, Tseng told Golfweek magazine in December that for six months she had avoided returning to Taiwan because she did not have an answer to the constant question of why she had not been playing well. She acknowledged that her struggles prompted new questions, and when her confidence suffered because of her play, she started hearing criticism for the first time.
“I used to not listen so much,” she said. “But when I struggle, I listen more.”
Tseng’s slide was magnified by the contrast with those stellar seasons in 2010 and 2011, when she was twice named the LPGA Player of the Year. She won 10 tournaments during that span, including four major championships, and held the tour’s low scoring average (69.66) in 2011.
Tseng won three times and recorded 11 top-10 finishes in 2012 and was fourth on the LPGA’s season money list.
She started the 2013 season with a runner-up finish at the LPGA’s first tournament, in Australia, and a tie for third the following week at the Honda LPGA Thailand. She could not have predicted the struggle that would follow.
Tseng went on to miss six tournament cuts last year, including those at the British Open and two other majors, and finished outside the top 25 in 10 events. She had only four top-10 finishes and recorded her first winless season since 2008, her rookie year. She fell out of the top ranking in March and was 34th by the end of 2013.
“Some players have a lot of added pressure, whether they feel they are carrying the tour or carrying their countries on their shoulders,” said Mike Whan, the LPGA commissioner. “It’s a tough game and it becomes even harder when you feel like you are carrying around more than your clubs.”
He added, “Yani is incredibly talented, and I’m sure when she finally lets go and realizes that the only person she needs to please on the golf course is herself, it will become easier.”
A particularly difficult result came when Tseng tied for 40th in October at the Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship. It was her long-awaited return home, but it became a difficult visit for a player who is regularly treated like a rock star in Taiwan. This time, she was as far away from the trophy as she had ever been.
Tseng also had surgery for a hernia shortly after the tournament in Taiwan. She spent the rest of the year healing, physically and mentally.
She turned for advice to the player she respects the most, Annika Sorenstam. Tseng bought Sorenstam’s former home in Orlando, Florida, a few years ago.
“She says everybody goes through this and she told me not to worry,” Tseng said. “She says I haven’t played my best yet, and she said I can learn from this.”
Tseng also plays friendly practice rounds at home in Orlando with fourth-ranked Suzann Pettersen, who lives nearby. Tseng still holds her own against Pettersen in money games, and Pettersen reminds Tseng to just go play golf and stop worrying about anyone’s expectations, including her own.
Tseng acknowledged that being the top-ranked player in the world was stressful, but it is where she wants to be again soon.
“I’m still young and I have a long career to go,” she said last year. “I’m not retired yet. I want to be world No. 1 again.”
Tseng’s winning 6-foot par putt on the last hole at Royal Birkdale in 2010 will be replayed many times this week. Her victory there at age 21 made her the youngest three-time major champion.
Those memories could be a boost for a season in desperate need of one. Tseng is returning to a course where she has had past success, believing that she can be successful again.
“I can’t wait to go back,” she said in a video on the LPGA’s website. “It’s one of the best tournaments I ever played, so I have lots of great memories.”
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