As I write this amid the hype following the U.S. Open, I can’t help but think back to the previous major. No, not the Masters, but the McDonald’s LPGA Championship.
If you missed the Lorena-Annika showdown at the LPGA’s second major, you missed quite a bit. Lorena was riding a two-straight-majors win streak. Annika was making what may well be her final appearance in the McDonald’s. The two most recent world number ones were each in contention down the stretch on Sunday. Everything seemed to be shaping up according to script at the turn, but the show was ultimately stolen by a 19-year old rookie named Yani Tseng.
Like Sunday at the Masters, the final round at Bulle Rock Golf Course in Havre de Grace, Md., was a survival test. Birdies were a rare commodity. Bogey, double, and worse lurked in the deep rough.
It was a tough day, and not only because of the heat. Sorenstam left a 15-foot birdie putt short on 18 that would have put her into the playoff. Ochoa birdied two of the last three holes (lipping out on the 16th) and finished with Sorenstam one shot out of the playoff. Following the round, she learned from her brother that her grandfather had died overnight (her uncle died two weeks earlier).
In the end, it really came down to a playoff between Maria Hjorth and Tseng. Hjorth, a Swedish player who had her rookie season 10 years ago rode a roller coaster on the back nine, hitting a SkyCaddie technician on 13 en route to a double-bogey and a rock with her second shot on 15 which bounced her ball out of the hazard and onto the fringe for a subsequent birdie. A bogey on 17 and par on 18 opened the door for a playoff with Tseng. With dusk threatening, Tseng rolled a five-foot birdie putt in on the fourth playoff hole to take the victory.
Who is this girl from Taiwan who bested the world’s best? She has a strong amateur record and is already beginning to emerge as a young gun on tour. She may be the next challenger for Lorena (since Petterson, Pressel and Creamer are showing no real signs of being able to stay with the world’s number one week in and week out).
Tseng is the first LPGA player from Taiwan to win a major and the first rookie to win one since Se Ri Pak won in 1998. She is also the second-youngest woman to win a major (19 years, 4 months). Morgan Pressel won last year’s Kraft Nabisco Championship at 18 years, 10 months.
It was the second time in as many months that Tseng has been in contention on Sunday. At the Ginn Open in April, a four-under 32 gave her the lead with eight holes remaining. But she bogeyed three of the final six holes, allowing Lorena Ochoa to catch and pass her for the win. At the LPGA Championship, she showed that she’d learned from the experience, withstanding the pressure and the heat, closing the gap with Hjorth and winning in the playoff.
Her nickname is Nini.
In her first season on Tour, Tseng has amassed some impressive stats. In 11 starts, she has four top 10 finishes. 27 of her 40 rounds are under par, ranking her fourth among all players. She’s tenth in driving distance with a 264.3 yard average. She’s hitting almost 72% of greens in regulation, which is good for ninth on Tour. Once on the green, she’s a respectable 20th in putts per green at 1.79. If she maintains those kind of numbers and improves her driving accuracy (currently 103rd on Tour) and sand saves (94th), there’s no telling how many wins her future may hold.
Tseng started playing golf when she was just 6.
Tseng qualified for the Tour on her first attempt, finishing T6 at the LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament.
In 2004, Tseng defeated defending champion Michelle Wie to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. A year later, she beat Morgan Pressel and won the North and South Amateur. All totaled she had 19 international amateur titles before turning pro in January 2007.
Tseng’s caddie at the McDonald’s was fellow LPGA rookie, Sherry Lin, a 26-year-old friend of Tseng’s from Taiwan.
Two who played with Tseng in the pro-am at last month’s Sybase Classic in Clifton, N.J., were in attendance at Bulle Rock to cheer her on. They provided some insight on Tseng’s character as well.
“She is the nicest kid,” said Madonna Hickey. “She gave us pointers on everything, from swinging the club to putting. She worried far more about teaching us something than playing her own game.”