Yani Tseng lives rock star life in Taiwan while dominating the LPGA Tour.
There’s a name tag on the side of Yani Tseng’s suitcase that reads, “Hello, my name is AWESOME.”
There’s likely a joke behind that handwritten sticker, but here in the VIP suite on a Saturday evening at the Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship, the moniker couldn’t have felt more appropriate. For starters, the No. 1 player in the world had agreed to do a photo shoot in her hotel room the night before the most significant round of her young career. That alone is almost unimaginable.
Security guards use flashlights to illuminate a path for Tseng and her entourage to make their way to her sprawling, messy suite. She allows us to rearrange her personal belongings to accommodate the shoot. She then agrees to climb atop a stack of suitcases for a quick portrait session. She even changes clothes midway through, putting on a brighter, camera-friendly red polo.
Tseng, fresh off a third-round 67 and frenzied meet-and-greet with fans, seems oddly relaxed. She chats about the extraordinary Taiwanese crowds and their sometimes distracting displays of enthusiasm (camera clicks, cheesy ring tones and a disregard for ropes). If she’s in a hurry, it’s only because she wants to duck out for some authentic Taiwanese food — the spread in player dining is catered more toward Western tastes — but not before she offers the use of her personal security as an escort back to the media hotel. Such gestures are commonplace for Tseng.
In a world of untouchable, unrelatable professional athletes, Tseng radiates normalcy. Her heart is as full and genuine as her laugh. Ms. Awesome spread cheer around the globe in 2011, winning in the United States, Australia, Thailand, China, Scotland, South Korea and her native Taiwan. Her 11 official victories worldwide designated her as the heir to Lorena Ochoa’s vacant throne as the most dominant player in golf. On 11/11/11, the LPGA paid special tribute to Tseng’s season. In December, she won for a 12th time, at an unofficial event in Taiwan.
She already has three wins in 2012.
“I enjoyed the pressure, enjoyed the attention, enjoyed having a press conference every week after I play,” said Tseng, the headliner this week as the LPGA Tour heads to its first major of 2012, the Kraft Nabisco Championship at Rancho Mirage, Calif. “That’s something that’s really lots of fun.”
Tseng, 23, grew up in a narrow, four-story town house in Linkou, Taiwan, the middle child of Mao-Shin “Charlie” and Yu-Yun Yang. With 23 million people living on an island that’s roughly the size of Maryland and Delaware combined, the Taiwanese build up.
The family’s cozy living room is a Yani shrine, with memorabilia tucked into every corner. On the floor by the TV, there’s a framed photo of Tseng with Malaysian Queen Tuanku Nur Zahirah, Tseng’s pro-am partner at the Sime Darby LPGA.
In Taiwan, Tseng paired with the country’s vice president, Vincent Siew.
On the opposite wall, there’s a darling photo of a 6-year-old Tseng playing in her first competition.
Charlie, an oil-company distributor who owns a good deal of property, is a former club champion of the 5,000-member Taipei Country Club. Yani’s mother, a petite woman who speaks little English but offers a warm smile and a bowl of noodle soup, is president of the women’s league at Shin Yo Golf Club. Yani grew up playing alongside her parents on the weekends.
Like many fathers, Charlie realized early that his daughter would find more success with someone else barking the instructions. He hired Tony Kao, an amateur legend in Taiwan who turned pro in 2002 at age 32 after his team won gold at the Asian Games.
Monday through Friday, Kao worked with Tseng after school until the sun went down. In a month’s time, Kao said, she would have one or two days off. This continued every day from ages 10 to 15.
In the beginning, Kao’s instruction — influenced by Charlie’s suggestion — was simple.
“Let’s focus on one thing: Hit it as far as possible,” Kao said.
From there, Kao began grading Tseng on her ability to shape shots — 27 kinds, to be exact. By age 12, Tseng could work the ball both ways and carry it 240 yards off the tee.
Kao, who spoke through the aid of an interpreter (Tseng’s senior adviser, Ernie Huang), didn’t discourage Tseng’s interest in other sports. Back then, Charlie owned a practice range and pool hall, and Tseng spent time at both. Pickup basketball games served as good cardio workouts.
To keep her interest level high, Kao opened his wallet.
“The key is stick and carrot,” Huang said. “Tony started to entice her to bet. Of course, Yani cannot beat Tony. But Tony knows when to let Yani win.”
Tseng wasn’t shy about challenging anyone on the putting green at Miramar Golf & Country Club to a putting contest. As Huang noted, there wasn’t much risk: “When she wins the money, she keeps the money. When she loses money, her father pays.”
Tseng kept up the practice as a young pro, placing birdie bets each week on the LPGA with Ochoa and Suzann Pettersen. Tseng is just as fearless and fun-loving today as she was at age 12.
Only now: “Everybody (is) talking about Yani,” Huang said.
Gina Yang was halfway down the mountain in her Toyota Tercel when one of her three cellphones rang.
It was manager Naya Hsu, another member of Yani Tseng’s team, calling to tell Yang there was an Audi VIP shuttle available. Yang made a U-turn and climbed back up to the clubhouse at Sunrise Golf & Country Club, where two grateful journalists climbed into the backseat and headed to downtown Taipei.
It was October, the Tuesday of tournament week, and the middle of the afternoon. Police cars escorted a parade of black Audis to the base of Taipei 101 — one of the world’s tallest towers — stopping traffic so that Tseng and her LPGA entourage could reach a news conference on time.
Hundreds of media had gathered for an event to promote the inaugural Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship.
Na Yeon Choi, Pettersen and Tseng held traditional Taiwanese folk puppets for throngs of photographers. Even LPGA commissioner Mike Whan took a turn puppeteering before announcing that Tseng had clinched the 2011 Rolex Player of the Year Award for the second consecutive year.
“Virtually every time Yani picks up a club, she’s making history,” Whan said.
At the conclusion of the news conference, Tseng cut through a row of hedges — security at her side — and hopped into a car. She headed to a small boutique, where good friend Ella Chen, of the girl band S.H.E., met her to act as a stylist.
The group S.H.E., a Taiwanese pop sensation, has recorded 12 albums, appeared in several drama series and variety shows and endorsed dozens of products since its debut in 2001. Taiwanese often say good friends Tseng and Chen look alike, though Chen has grown out her hair in recent months. One quickly discovers that in Taiwan, most of Tseng’s friends are famous.
Tseng was on a mission to find something to wear to a gala the next evening. She tried on several pant-suit jumpers — “A little tight,” she said, laughing — before settling on a black one paired with a ruffled button-down shirt. In the past couple of years, the tomboy Tseng has taken a liking to stilettos, of all things, and she tried on several pairs. She contemplated a fire-engine red pair of heels before leaving with a classic black.
Tseng then changed into a T-shirt, and from there the group headed to Tseng’s favorite shabu-shabu restaurant in downtown Taipei. She took charge, ordering beef, pork and fish with a basket of vegetables. Each person had her own pot of boiling water in this Japanese variant of hot pot.
Pictures of Chen and S.H.E.’s CDs were behind the cash register at the restaurant. Chen even had a signature dish. Tseng ordered her favorite item on the menu for everyone at the table: milk tea topped with a thick whipped cream. She has yet to find a cream that can match it stateside.
Back at Sunrise, Tseng and her team prepared to introduce Taiwan to the LPGA. Tseng signed with IMG at the start of her professional career but left the management group to strike out on her own. Her former caddie, Sherry Lin, manages Tseng’s affairs in China; Yang started in June and takes care of things in Taiwan; and Hsu travels the globe with Tseng, shouting “How cho!” (Good shot!) from outside the ropes. Huang, who first brought Tseng to the US to compete in the 2002 Callaway Junior World Championships and introduced her to US Golf Association events, acts as a senior adviser.
Together, this group — along with instructor Gary Gilchrist, trainer Power Huang and caddie Jason Hamilton — forms the nucleus of Team Tseng. Technically, she doesn’t have an agent or a company that represents her. It’s an unusual setup for a world No. 1.
Hsu left a long career with Nike to join Tseng in early 2011. She worked in the entertainment division in Asia and has introduced Tseng to high-profile athletes and musicians. The amiable Hsu walks every hole with Tseng and can be spotted easily in her neon yellow shoes, backpack and wind jacket. Hsu keeps a fairly low profile in the US, but in Taiwan she often served as another security guard for Tseng, keeping over-eager fans at bay and controlling traffic. She’s a constant companion for the very social Tseng, and helps her keep a balanced schedule. Hsu’s presence on tour was crucial in 2011, as Tseng transitioned into life as the game’s most dominant player.
Taiwan turned 100 years old on Oct. 10, 2011. Thousands of flags still lined the streets of Taipei when the LPGA came to the island two weeks later. National pride pours out of the Taiwanese, which is why so many novice golf fans showed up on the first tee Thursday at Sunrise to catch their first glimpse of Tseng. Baseball and basketball reign in Taiwan, but there’s one thing most Asians can agree upon.
“We love being associated with the best in the world,” said Sean Pyun, LPGA manager of tournament business affairs.
That explains why nearly 12,000 Taiwanese came to Sunrise to support Tseng and collect autographs for the first round, a record crowd for golf in Taiwan. Organizers expected about 4,000 patrons. By late Friday, they’d put up ropes for an autograph session near the clubhouse so that Sandra Gal and other players could sign long after the sun went down. The atmosphere was US Women’s Open-esque.
Tseng introduced her “How Cho!” logo that week in Taiwan and sold several logoed items at the booth that was run by her team. On Saturday evening, as Tseng answered questions about her 5-under 67 in the interview room, Hsu suggested that Golfweek photographer Tracy Wilcox immediately head to Tseng’s tent. Her booth was blowing up.
The scene at tent village was one of rock-star hysteria. Floodlights lit the path for Tseng to travel by golf cart past a crush of noisy fans. Those who bought an item at Tseng’s booth throughout the week got the chance to put their name in a drawing to meet Tseng and have a photo taken. Twenty fans had their names drawn; hundreds more lined up to shake her hand.
Hsu kneeled down next to Tseng and directed traffic with a megaphone as young and old filed through to meet Tseng. Hsu urged the fans to be gentle with Tseng’s hand because she had one more round to play. Tseng’s father stood in the back of the tent, stoically taking in the controlled chaos. Huang stood on a chair and videotaped.
Proceeds from what was sold in Tseng’s tent will go toward children who suffer from a cleft lip and palate. Tseng often talks about how important it is to offer fans a smile and stay positive on the course. It’s part of what makes her so charming. She wants every child to be able to smile with such confidence.
When Tseng won the Wegmans LPGA Championship by a commanding 10 strokes last year, she offered this explanation: “I am having so much fun out there. I smile all the way.”
Eily Ho, a friend of Tseng’s who runs a nonprofit organization and threw the after-party following Tseng’s victory in Taiwan, got teary-eyed on the first tee when she saw how many people came out to watch Yani’s first round.
“Sister Ho,” as Tseng calls her, was president of the Taipei Golf Association for four years. Ho said it’s only since Tseng began her meteoric rise that Taiwanese fans have taken golf more seriously.
“People started to wake up at midnight to watch the tournaments — only for her,” Ho said.
Ho appreciates the encouraging messages Tseng sends to younger generations of Taiwanese through her positive wording. In 2009, Ho brought Special Olympics golf to Taiwan for the first time. Ten Asian countries were represented, and Ho made sure that all four LPGA players from Taiwan — Amy Hung, Candie Kung, Teresa Lu and Tseng — were on hand for the event. They held a Q&A seminar with the kids and put on a clinic.
Tseng had a tough year in 2009, winning only once and finishing seventh in earnings. The Special Olympics offered her perspective.
“(Yani) cried a few times, she was so touched,” Ho said. “She said, ‘How can these people be so focused and not give up?’ ”
Tseng reached a new level of maturity in 2011. She learned to embrace all that comes with success rather than fear it. A preseason chat with Annika Sorenstam, Tseng’s idol and Orlando, Fla., neighbor, helped with that mission.
Tseng dominated the Wegmans LPGA Championship with her “A” game, and played with an impressive amount of patience and control around Carnoustie at the Ricoh Women’s British Open, becoming the youngest player (22) to win five majors. She won seven LPGA titles.
“I can’t find a weakness about her game,” friend and rival Na Yeon Choi said. “Really, I can’t find it.”
Tseng led nearly every statistical category on tour: birdies (358), rounds under par (54 of 77), rounds in the 60s (41 of 77), top 10s (14 of 22), scoring average (69.66), driving average (269.2) and Rolex points (336). She was second in greens hit (74.3 percent).
“I was very happy and proud of myself,” Tseng said, “how much I’ve improved. My mental (outlook), my attitude.”
Tseng missed one cut in 2011, and had this to say when asked what went wrong: “No, I didn’t even go to Mobile.” She blocked it out.
Tseng had members of the national media over for dinner at her home in Lake Nona the night before Round 1 of the season-ending CME Group Titleholders in Orlando, Fla. It was the first time any of the invitees could recall a player — let alone, the world No. 1 — hosting a thank-you party for scribes and TV types.
Tseng’s caddie grilled steaks on the back patio, and his fiancée, Katy Mullin, created a scrumptious spread of sides. Tseng’s mom worked alongside Mullin in the kitchen.
When some of the Orlando-area residents began talking about theme parks, Tseng ran to her bedroom to put on her Harry Potter costume. She then gave a short speech thanking the media for their coverage of the LPGA while wearing her black cape and dark-rimmed glasses. This was not a ploy to get more positive ink. Tseng was, quite simply, being kind.
Tseng’s commitment to learning English has allowed her humor to come through. She trash-talked in the game room, taking names at the pool table while a foursome enjoyed a rowdy game of pingpong. Tseng proved to be an entertaining host.
When asked about her Thursday morning tee time, she told guests not to worry. Just have fun.
The trophy case in Tseng’s home office, built by former owner Sorenstam, is filling up nicely. Tseng put an “angry bird” inside her 2010 Kraft Nabisco replica trophy because she failed to beat Stacy Lewis last spring.
“I didn’t win this year, so I put the angry bird in there,” Tseng said with a laugh.
Before leaving the office, Tseng pointed to a large empty opening in the trophy case, designed for US Women’s Open hardware. It’s the only major she needs to complete the career grand slam.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure,” Tseng said, “but we are preparing for that.”
There are bigger goals.
Every year, Tseng goes to Lungshan Temple in Taipei to pray. She wears a bracelet in remembrance of this tradition. The temple, a bustling place for locals and tourists alike, is filled with colorful foods and flowers, laid at the foot of ornate altars as a simple offering.
Tseng has more than 12 reasons to give thanks. She wants to make a lasting impact on her country; the 84,000 fans who came out to watch Tseng perform at her peak are proof of the kind of early impression she has made. Hamilton said it was like carrying the bag for Lady Gaga.
“Before Taiwan (Sunrise LPGA), I don’t think I’m that famous in Taiwan,” Tseng said. “Until I see that many people come out and watch on the golf course.”
She likened it to a Tiger Woods gallery.
“The only thing you can do is hit it straight,” Tseng said. “If I hit it to the left or to the right, it’s going to bounce back. . . . Now I know what Tiger feels, because every time he hits it wide, it always gets a good lie.”
When Tseng talks about building the future of golf in Taiwan, she points toward South Korea and Japan. Her vision, however, goes beyond golf. She would like to build an all-sports academy for budding athletes in Taiwan.
Tseng’s dominance at Sunrise showed all of Taiwan that its homegrown hero is legitimate. The world’s best descended upon their backyard, and she welcomed each one with a warm smile and a gift box and then put on a one-woman show.
When Tseng walked off the 18th green as a champion, with 20,000-plus cheering wildly, she found the arms of her 92-year-old grandmother, Cheng-chu Yang, on hand to watch her play in person for the first time since Yani was 6.