Wild, raucous and deep into the fun side of cool. And that’s just the autograph line.
It is impossible to overstate the magic and mayhem that will greet Taiwan’s Yani Tseng this week when the women’s world No. 1 golfer returns home to defend her title in the second annual Sunrise LPGA Championship.
Second verse, crazier than the first?
Consider LPGA veteran player Sophie Gustafson’s Twitter post last year after being a part of the inaugural event: “I’ve seen Annika in Sweden. I’ve seen Se Ri in Korea. I’m seen Lorena in Mexico. And nothing compares to Yani in Taiwan.”
Who says you can’t tell the whole story in 140 characters of less?
Despite everything Annika Sorenstam, Se Ri Pak and Lorena Ochoa have done to grow women’s golf in their native countries -- and each one’s respective feat is historic -- no one has ignited pure fanaticism quite like Tseng.
Little Taiwan, about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined and dwarfed by archrival China’s economic clout, diplomatic support and world sports muscle, is home to the top-ranked women’s golfer in the world, and it could not be more proud. Although China views its tiny neighbor very much as a belonging and urges world sports associations and international bodies to ignore the island of 23 million people, Taiwan sits unchallenged atop the world in women’s golf.
“She represents courage, proud and hope,” Melanie Huang, general manager of the tournament host Sunrise Golf Club, praised in an email response to questions about Tseng. “Courage is for players who still insist on their dreams; proud is for public who support golf all the time; Hope is for people who have the same goal and never give up. It is not only the champion of LPGA Taiwanese championship. It is about the spirit of persistent and brave.”
All because of Yani, who at the young age of 23 already has 15 LPGA titles, and is the youngest player in golf history -- male or female -- to have won five major championships. All because she has held the world No. 1 ranking since January 2011 and is listed by Time Magazine as one of its "100 Most Influential People in the World” for 2012.
And for that, Taiwan this week will show its appreciation. All over again.
“Last year was one of my best memories ever, because I had never seen that many people in my life on a golf course,” Tseng said. “I was very surprised. I was very emotional. When I stepped on the first tee, I was almost in tears. I was ‘Wow.’ I was like I want to win this tournament not for me . I want to win this tournament for the people.”
The scene was beyond anything the LPGA is accustomed to seeing. Players actually took pictures for their own scrapbooks, making a laborious climb onto the clubhouse roof to record the scene playing out below.
What they witnessed at the LPGA’s first ever visit to Taiwan was a massive crowd that far exceeded expected numbers, swamping the Sunrise Golf Club. Most of the estimated 65,000 spectators knew little about golf. Many were seeing the game for the first time. But all were aware of one thing: Their own Yani Tseng is the best in the world.
“The success of Yani proves that Taiwan’s athlete can have extraordinary achievement in personal contest on the world stage,” Huang said. “Yani represents a positive courage and support to anyone who insists in their goal.”
Fans came early and stayed late for a chance to see and cheer Tseng. They congregated at the first hole, setting up camp a dozen deep along the tee box, fairway and green to assure themselves the earliest view of history possible. They didn’t move until Tseng had passed.
“And every single person there … if they didn’t have a camera, they were holding up their phone and if they were not holding up their phone, they were holding up their iPad to take pictures,” said veteran Golfweek reporter Beth Ann Baldry who was in attendance. “It was insanity.”
So crazy was Yani-mania during the week that the hero began offering impromptu seminars on gallery etiquette, particularly camera shutters clicking before shots.
She also was moved to spend hours behind closed doors autographing little stickers and then handing them out at the golf course in an effort to avoid the crush of an endless signing line.
It wasn’t enough. A tournament-week function allowed fans a brief moment to meet Yani, shake her hand, pose for a picture and move on. The line went forever, stretching endlessly into the end-of-day darkness. There was actually pushing and shoving between media photographers, battling for the best camera angles of the event.
“A little dangerous,” Tseng acknowledged in amazement.
Even before the tournament began, there was no question something special was happening. So large was the crowd that greeted Tseng’s arrival at the airport, she was assigned the same security detail provided for pop singer Lady Gaga when she preformed there.
“I am just really surprised how many people are here just supporting this tournament, supporting golf, because, at first golf is not as popular like baseball and basketball here,” she said. “But now it seems like we’re growing a lot and I’m really happy to see this, and I wish in the future there will be more and more people playing.”
Bank on it.
Baseball is Taiwan’s national sport. A steady stream of Taiwanese players have made their way to Major League Baseball rosters, including current Washington Nationals pitcher Chien-Ming Wang and Baltimore Orioles’ hurler Wei-Yin Chen. Basketball also draws large and passionate support, followed by taekondo, a sport in which Taiwan has won Olympic gold.
Golf? The Japanese brought the game to Taiwan and the country’s oldest course, the Taiwan G and CC, dates back to 1918, but the sport’s professional presence was always limited.
In 1971 Ling Huan Lu battled Lee Trevino at the British Open at Royal Birkdale before eventually finishing second, one shot back, and T.C. Chen led the 1985 U.S. Open before finishing second. On the women’s side, Yu Ping Lin became the first LPGA player to compete on the LPGA, playing from 2000 to 2008, but never won and eventually returned home to teach golf to Taiwan’s junior players.
Later Candie Kung, an 11-year LPGA Tour member, and Amy Hung, in her ninth season, followed and have enjoyed modest success, but nothing that changed history.
Then along came Yani.
“It’s a dream come true for Taiwan and it really helps golf at home,” Hung was quoted after last year’s win by Tseng. “It helped our government to see that this is important and why they need to support it.”
Kung, who won three of her four career LPGA titles in 2003, agreed: “Eight years ago when I was playing really well, I couldn’t do what she has done. Golf was just starting to grow at home. When she came out and won a lot, it started making big changes to Taiwanese golf.”
So much so that last year the LPGA added Taiwan to its schedule, and -- how appropriate -- Tseng won the inaugural event by five shots.
“I had goose bumps on the first tee that week,” said Kung, a former two-time All-American at Southern Cal and winner of the 2001 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links. “I’ve never seen that many people on a golf course, even at the U.S. Women’s Open. And they cheered for every single player, not just the players from Taiwan.”
Although polite, they were passionate with their desires. Almost every fan seemed to carry either a Taiwanese flag, banner or homemade signs. The common message: “Yani, keep going!”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Baldry said. “This was mostly a crowd that had never been to a golf tournament before. But she was a national hero because she is the best in the world. The best at something relatively new.
“So many people came out to support her. I don’t think she realized the status of her fame at that point because she has spent so much time away from Taiwan and it was hard for her to judge how she was being received back home. But she is viewed as a national treasure because she’s the best. And for her to do it in front of them, to just dominate that tournament only elevated her even more.”
Then it was time to celebrate. And how?
Immediately after Tseng’s victory last year, she announced a $100,000 donation to the Golf Association Republic of China, a program that helps train and develop young golfers in Taiwan.
“It is what I always wanted to do, to give back,” Tseng said. “I feel I am lucky to play golf. If I play good I can bring more people, encourage more people. Last year was one of my best memories ever, because I had never seen that many people in my life on a golf course. It was incredible. Especially because golf has not been so popular in Taiwan.”
Then along came Yani.