PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Sometimes, expectations can create all sorts of problems, even for the top-ranked player in women’s golf.
Yani Tseng knows from experience.
With five majors already won and having captured the LPGA Tour Player of the Year award for the second straight year, wrapping it up with four events still on the 2011 calendar, Tseng went into the offseason somewhat awestruck at what she’d accomplished in such a short time and what the future might hold.
“At the beginning of this year, I was putting so much pressure (on myself), the most pressure I’ve ever had in my whole life,” said Tseng, who turned pro in 2007 and joined the tour full-time the next year. “In January, I would just stay home. I wouldn’t go out. It was no fun.”
It didn’t take long for that to change. After celebrating her 23rd birthday in late January, the Taiwanese star won Thailand for the second straight time and has remained atop the world rankings, a near cinch to win player of the year again.
“I don’t feel as much pressure (now), but the people around me, they say ... I’m getting picky, I want to try to be perfect all the time,” Tseng said. “But that’s not me. The more relaxed I am, the better I play. The week of Thailand, the second week, I kind of calmed down a little bit. That week ... was huge for me. After Thailand, I know that I can still keep the momentum going. At the beginning of this year, I was afraid. I didn’t know if I could do it again.”
Not much to worry about. Tseng won three of the first five events on the 2012 LPGA Tour, leads the player of the year rankings by a wide margin over Sun Young Yoo and Stacy Lewis, and enters this week’s LPGA Championship at Locust Hill Country Club as the defending champion.
“I didn’t expect this. When I win the first (major), I never thought I’m going to win a second major,” said Tseng, who finished third in the first major this year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, just one shot out of a playoff. “I never thought about winning five. I never think about it, but now I’m thinking I can win more, of course.”
Tseng’s meteoric rise has made her the latest face of women’s golf, and she has embraced the demands that go with it.
“She’s been accessible, available, and the ambassador at every turn,” said Kraig Kann, chief communications officer of the LPGA Tour. “Every opportunity we’ve given her that we feel like is one that she needs to do, she’s done. You can’t do everything, but I am so impressed with how she carries herself.”
She’s not afraid, she’s not intimidated. Is she perfect at English? No, but most people would have no idea how great at it she really is.
“She’s not afraid to communicate the message. She understands that if she’s going to be No. 1 in the world, she needs to be that face out front. She needs to be engaging with the fans. She doesn’t shy away from anything.”
And that’s why the fans who swarm to Locust Hill every year treat her as one of their own. Tseng ran away with last year’s LPGA Championship, winning by 10 shots over Morgan Pressel and Cindy LaCrosse.
“Last year when I walked on the 18th hole — I’m pretty emotional — the crowd was amazing,” Tseng said. “Everybody stand up and clapped for me. I was like, I don’t know for what because I’m not American.”
That victory made Tseng the youngest female golfer in history — 22 years, 4 months and 18 days — to win four major titles. Winning here again will be a challenge if she continues to falter as she has in her last two tournaments. In the Sybase Match Play Championship, she was knocked out in the round of 16, and last week finished tied for 12th at the ShopRite LPGA Classic won by Lewis.
Tseng tees off today with Lewis, who has won two of her last three starts, and Paula Creamer.
This tournament marks the beginning of a new LPGA effort in social media. Caddies will be sporting bibs with Twitter handles on their backs. Kann says 113 LPGA players have Twitter accounts, including (at)YaniTseng.
The LPGA Championship has been sponsored by Wegmans Food Markets the past three years. The contract is up after this year, but both sides plan to sit down after the tournament to work on a new deal.
“It’s got such great history with the LPGA and the Wegman family,” said Cristie Kerr, who won the 2010 LPGA Championship by a record 12 shots. “If they end up moving it around, then, you know, it’s really a no-lose situation. It’s a great golf town for us and obviously great sponsor, so whatever they want to do, we’ll do.”