After taking one round off from her utter domination of the LPGA Tour to get rested and reinvigorated, Yani Tseng is right back in her usual spot atop the leaderboard.
The world’s top-ranked golfer shot her second straight 68 at the Kraft Nabisco Championship on Friday, moving into a one-stroke lead over Haeji Kang after the second round of the season’s first major.
Lindsey Wright (71) and Sun Young Yoo (69) were third at 6 under, while Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak was three strokes back in fifth midway through the only major she has never won. Pak shot a 69 to move to 5 under, joined by Karin Sjodin and World No. 2 Na Yeon Choi.
Yet everybody in the talent-packed field realizes they’re only chasing Tseng, who has won the tour’s last two tournaments.
"She’s a force to be reckoned with," said Australia’s Wright, who shared the lead with Tseng for five holes. "I think it’s great to have her up there again, but it’s also great to be able to challenge her and try to give her a run for her money."
After finishing two strokes back on Thursday, Tseng produced yet another relentless round of long drives and steady putting. The 23-year-old Taiwanese star has led nine of the LPGA Tour’s last 10 rounds, and the five-time major winner has won three of five tournaments this year and six of 12 overall.
And she still had enough energy after her stellar second round to play a little pickup basketball.
"You never get tired when you want to win a tournament," Tseng said. "I just figured out I’m tired after the last two wins when you come into this week, but after (Thursday), I had a good sleep, and I relaxed a few days, and I think I’m coming back with a fresh focus."
The rest of the field should be worried when the Orlando Magic fan has enough energy to hoop it up with her manager and friends. After fighting exhaustion during practice and in the first round Thursday, Tseng woke up fresh to resume her quest to become the youngest golfer to win six majors — three years younger than Tiger Woods, who was 26 when he won his sixth.
Tseng took control by exploiting her distance advantage over nearly everybody off the tee. After following a long birdie putt on her fourth hole with another birdie on her fifth, she birdied three of Mission Hills’ four par-5s with soaring drives that aren’t regularly matched by her fellow pros.
Pak stayed in contention with her second straight solid round despite playing through much of the warmest weather after starting with the final tee time of the morning group.
The 34-year-old Pak has won five majors, including three LPGA Championships, and has 25 tour victories overall, but the former prodigy and Korean golf pioneer has just one victory on the LPGA Tour since July 2007. She shares many concerns voiced by Wright on Thursday about the importance of adding balance and perspective to the grind of tour life.
"I’m having trouble for five or six years, actually," Pak said. "I still love golf, and I can’t quit it because I still really want to play. It took a lot for myself to be happy. It was difficult to find out. … Slowly, I know I’m getting better and better, and my attitude and everything is getting slowly better. Starting last year around the fall, I don’t know how, (but) everything is really calm for me."
Although Pak has four top-10 finishes in the Kraft Nabisco, she has never done better than ninth at Mission Hills, failing to finish the career grand slam.
"This is one of my goals I’ve set," said Pak, who won four majors before she turned 25. "Getting into the Hall of Fame, that’s the biggest, and next, trying to win a major like this. This is the goal for me for 14, 15 years. This is the one I need, but this is the one that always gives me a hard time."
Kang birdied her final hole in the Palm Springs afternoon heat to conclude an eventful seven-birdie, three-bogey round, moving to 7 under with a 68. She has just two top-10 finishes in her four-year LPGA Tour career.
Wright was one stroke off the lead after the opening round, and she spent Friday morning reading supportive emails from around the world after she spoke about her comeback from depression and anxiety. After eight straight second-round pars, Wright put her iron shot on No. 9 on the front of the green, where it rolled straight in for an eagle.
"I didn’t see it go in," Wright said. "I just heard the screaming."
Wright took a share of the lead with a birdie on the 10th, but fell back with a three-putt double bogey on the 15th.
Michelle Wie shot a 77 to finish 6 over, missing consecutive cuts for the first time since 2007. Opening-round leader Amy Yang dropped back into eighth with a 2-over 74 after starting with a 66.
Teenage rookie Jenny Shin finished 5 over, but the Los Angeles-area product won a Kia Optima with a hole-in-one on the 179-yard 17th.