Yani Tseng has not triumphed in an LPGA tournament in almost a year but this week she’ll take her razor-thin lead in the world rankings back to an event she’s won two years in a row to see if she can notch her first victory since March.
Tseng, clinging to a 1.29-average point edge over Na Yeon Choi atop the Rolex Rankings, hopes she can find some of the magic that helped her nearly hole out from 100 yards on the par-5 18th in Thailand in 2012 but that has eluded her since last year’s Kia Classic. She’ll kick off her quest for a three-peat against a stout field that includes 2012 Player of the Year Stacy Lewis, last week’s Australian Women’s Open winner Jiyai Shin, and teen sensation Lydia Ko.
The 24-year-old from Taiwan said she was up to the task, especially after posting a 66 in the Aussie finale in which she recorded a second-place finish.
“I think last week I’m very happy about,” Tseng said earlier this week. “I feel good on my swing because I’ve been working so hard on my swing with my coach Gary [Gilchrist] in Orlando. So I’m very happy to see my swing be more consistently.”
Gilchrist, who works with Tseng on her mental game as well as her mechanics, has helped his pupil regain the confidence she lost during a prolonged slump in the middle of last season. The key, he told us recently, was to get Tseng to stop “trying to prove herself every week instead of improving.”
Tseng subscribed to Gilchrist’s theory.
“I don’t want to think about it that much,” Tseng said about the possibility of joining an elite group of just nine players such as Annika Sorenstam, Laura Davies, Lorena Ochoa, and Karrie Webb, each of whom won an LPGA event in an least three consecutive seasons.
“I want to play one shot at a time and stay cool and smile on the golf course,” she said. “I want to make fans who come to support us enjoy it so it doesn’t matter how I play, I just want to enjoy it.”
With faith in herself at about a “seven or eight” to start the season, Gilchrist’s goal was to boost her self-assurance to a 10 by the time the first major of the year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, rolls around in April.
Tseng entered last year’s Thai tourney with a robust seven-point average advantage over No. 2 Suzann Pettersen. She padded her lead over an inactive Choi with her second-place finish last week, but Gilchrist told Beth Ann Baldry before the season began that it “might be a gift” for her game if Tseng were to lose the lofty position she has held now for 106 consecutive weeks.
“When you’re No. 1 in your sport [and] have to play to a high level,” Gilchrist said during a phone interview, “people start doing all kinds of things to stay at that level…and everybody expected her to play well week after week.”
The pressure to win each time out had Tseng worried about results, maintaining her top rank, and chalking up a third consecutive Player of the Year award — all of which, Gilchrist said, “caused her to start really not enjoying the game.”
Again, Tseng agreed with her mentor.
“Last year was very challenging and a very growing up year for me,” she said. “Now I feel world No. 1 doesn’t mean as much to me as when I was chasing world No. 1. I think now the most important thing for me is to enjoy the golf more.”
As for Ko, who foundered in Sunday’s final round and fell to third place after sharing the 54-hole lead with Shin, the teen whiz kid will tee it up in the first two rounds in Thailand with fellow teen Lexi Thompson and 52-year-old Hall of Famer Juli Inkster. Guy Wilson, who coaches the 15-year-old, said the two of them had ironed out the kinks in Ko’s errant tee shots, which led to a final-round 76, one of her worst scores ever.
Wilson also said Ko’s performance in the finale was evidence that she was not ready to turn pro, despite the prodding of Tiger Woods’ ex-caddie Steve Williams to do so. Williams told AAP he saw “no negative” in Ko turning pro as soon as possible.
Wilson pooh-poohed the idea.
“She hasn’t got any new plans for it to move from being a game to a job,” Wilson told The Australian after Ko’s third-place finish last week, which followed a win (her third W in a professional contest) at the New Zealand Open. “In our plans, she’s probably got about a year and a half to go [before turning professional].”
Wilson said her final round Down Under indicated she was not ready to make the leap to the pros.
“It’s a big decision,” he said. “It’s not the same playing as an amateur as it is as a professional. There are a whole lot of other extraneous pressures and calls that come with that.
“She’s only 15,” he noted about the youngster who competed in the 2011 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Rhode Island Country Club. “I think it’s a very wise move by her just to take her time.”
Emily Kay is a regular contributor to New England Golf Monthly. You may follow Kay on Twitter @golfexaminer