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Female Golfing Phenom Seeks Titles, Recognition

Aug 25, 2011
Originally published on August 26, 2011 9:41 am

The world's top female golfers are battling it out in Mirabel, Quebec, this week at the Canadian Women's Open. In the field is a powerful yet little-known player: world No. 1 Yani Tseng of Taiwan.

Tseng has been powering and smiling her way around golf courses — and making history. She has already done something that no one who has swung a golf club has done before: At the relatively tender age of 22, Tseng has won five major championships.

Tiger Woods was 24 when he won his fifth major. The legendary Patty Berg, who holds the LPGA record with 15 Grand Slam titles, was 25. Hall-of-famer Annika Sorenstam was 32.

Tseng has won most of her majors just since last year. She still counts as one of her career milestones the day when, as an 11-year-old, she beat her dad, a near-scratch golfer.

Letting Go Of The Bad Stuff

At hole No. 7 during the second round of the recent Safeway Classic in Portland, Ore., Tseng drove her tee shot into the sand of a fairway bunker. From there, she hit into thick rough. The old Tseng would have walked up to her third shot with slumped shoulders and a sour face.

Instead, waiting to hit, she recognized someone in the gallery, grinned and said, "Hi!" Then Tseng hit a beautiful shot that stopped 5 feet from the hole. She sank the putt for par and fist-bumped her caddie.

The moment would have made Gary Gilchrist, her swing coach, proud. The two have worked a lot on getting Tseng to control her emotions when she hits a bad shot. She has been learning how to accept it, move on and stay focused. Gilchrist, who runs a golf academy in Florida, says the work has paid off.

"When she missed a fairway, she'd make bogey," he says. "Once she changed her attitude and body language, she started making birdies."

Support From Her Fan Base

Tseng is a golfing triple threat, with accuracy, touch and power. She drives the ball, on average, a tour-best 269 yards.

When she does, she often hears, "Go, Yani, go!!" in Mandarin. It's a reminder about her fan base. She's a big deal in Asia, especially her native Taiwan. On a trip home after she won the British Open in July, Tseng kept getting stopped on the streets. She's a household name there — but not here. It bothers her a bit.

Rory McIlroy, who is the same age as Tseng, was anointed "the next big thing" in golf after he won his first major on the men's tour this summer. The PGA is more popular than the LPGA, but still, Tseng has won five majors and hasn't gotten close to that kind of adulation.

Such is life, though, as a non-American on the U.S.-based LPGA Tour, which has struggled in recent years, losing sponsors and its two best players — Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa — to retirement.

Reaching Out Through Language

Tseng is doing her part to connect with Americans, with her ready smile and with language.

"I don't want to be afraid to talk to people," she says, "so we have [a] conversation, and I learn some vocabulary, some grammar from you, and that's how I learn English."

A couple of years ago, as the number of top Asian players surged on the LPGA Tour, former Commissioner Carolyn Bivens proposed that athletes needed to be proficient in English or face suspension. The controversial plan died quickly.

Tseng says embracing English isn't part of any directive. Rather, she says, learning the language helps her feel comfortable and more relaxed on the golf course. It's all part of her education.

"I feel like I still have a long way to go," Tseng says. "I'm 22 now, and I need to work on lots of things and just keep learning."

Imagine the golf world when she finally figures it out.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

It's day two of the Canadian Women's Open golf tournament. Among the top golfers competing in Quebec is the best player you've probably never heard of. She's number one ranked, Yani Tseng, from Taiwan. Tseng has been powering and smiling her way around golf courses. And as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, making history.

TOM GOLDMAN: She's won five major championships. And she's 22. Tiger Woods was 24 when he won his fifth major. Legendary Patty Berg was 25. Berg holds the LPGA record with 15 grand slam titles. Yani Tseng has won most of her majors just since last year. What, you ask, is going on with this stocky, chatty young phenom who still counts beating her dad at golf?

YANI TSENG: 2000's the year I beat my father.

GOLDMAN: She sank the putt for par and fist-bumped her caddie. It was a moment that would've made Gary Gilchrist proud. Gilchrist is Tseng's coach. They've worked a lot on her reactions to bad shots. How to accept them, move on, stay focused. From his home in Florida, Gilchrist says it's paid off.

(SOUNDBITE OF HITTING GOLF BALL)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GARY GILCHRIST: You know, when she missed a fairway, she'd make bogey. And then once she changed her attitude and her body language, she started making birdies.

GOLDMAN: Unidentified Man: (Mandarin language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF HITTING GOLF BALL)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

GOLDMAN: Yani j'eye yo(ph), in mandarin, roughly, go Yani go. It's a constant cry from the galleries that follow Tseng and a reminder about her fan base. She's really big in Asia, especially her native Taiwan.

LPGA: five majors. But such is life as a non-American on the U.S.-based LPGA tour - a tour that has struggled in recent years, losing sponsors and its two best players - Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa - to retirement. But Yani Tseng is doing her part to connect with Americans with smiles and language.

TSENG: I talk too much. You know, I don't afraid to talk to people, so I just - we have conversation and I learn from some vocabulary, some grammar from you and that's how I learn the English.

GOLDMAN: Tseng says embracing English isn't part of any directive. Rather, she says learning the language helps her feel comfortable and more relaxed on the golf course. All part of educating Yani.

TSENG: I feel like I still have a long way to go. I'm 22 now and I need to work on lots of thing and just keep learning.

GOLDMAN: Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.