OWINGS MILL, Md. - Is this the moment everyone turns to in a few years as the turnaround point? Every career has peaks and valleys, and Yani Tseng is hoping that her recent struggles come to an end this week in Maryland.
Tseng, ranked No. 36 on the LPGA money list, hardly needs a career resurrection. But she’s looking for the old self for her to come back. She’s not exactly the typical top-40 player. She’s a five-time major champion that won all before she was even 23 and had one of the greatest years in women’s golf history in 2011 with seven wins, including two majors. She won three times in 2012, but we haven’t really seen that Yani since.
Flashes of the tantalizing talent popped up from the opening hole at Caves Valley on Thursday. She drove her tee shot to a point only Lexi Thompson can fathom hitting it to, nearly putting it on the green, and then delicately flopped her approach to three-feet. Standing over that initial birdie, she felt the hands shaking. The last time she felt that was on the 18th green at the 2011 Women’s British Open, standing over a 6-foot-par putt for the win, which she drained. She drained this one, too, and the glimpse of the golf that made her the world’s best wasn’t fleeting either with birdies on the fourth and sixth hole.
“I felt like the old Yani is back,” she said. “Today, this feeling, I haven’t had this feeling for a long time.”
She’s always maintained that the bulk of her struggles related to her mental game, but current world No. 1 Stacy Lewis said after that Tseng doesn’t hit it high like she used to and believed that was more of why she was struggling. Tseng agreed but says the game’s still there.
“I actually feel like hopefully this is my turning point for the rest of my life I’ll say,” she said. “But like I just, I felt great today because I didn’t really worry about myself. All I want is to play good for my teammates and my country. That’s all I care about.”
Tseng’s wanted this feeling forever – the opportunity to represent her country in a team competition. The motivation is different, she says, and for once on Tour, she’s not just playing for herself. And when Lewis made birdie on the 16th hole to tie up the match, Tseng felt the emotions of the past come back and so did the trademark smile.
“On the last few holes, it’s just incredible. I love the feeling, actually,” she said. “I know I’m nervous. I know I’m juiced up. I hit it longer, and, I mean, I smile all the way because I’m nervous. I always remember when I’m nervous, I smile a lot.”
She hasn’t always responded positively to those emotions recently. At the Kingsmill Championship, where her tied for second was the best of the year, Tseng entered No. 18 needing a birdie to get within one to put pressure on Lizette Salas on 18. Instead, she doubled, and the smile dissipated as quickly as it appeared.
After a 3-putt bogey from about 8-feet on No. 8, it looked like Tseng was heading down the same path. She didn’t hit a fairway the next nine holes. But on No. 18, when it mattered most, she bombed a driver down to set up an iron into the 412-yard par-4. Likely needing a birdie to win the match after Stacy Lewis safely hit her second to 25-feet, Tseng grabbed her five iron from 186 yards and hit it to 10 feet.
“Actually I didn’t feel much pressure, because, I mean, to beat the U.S., it’s hard to imagine that,” Tseng said. “I just told myself, just look at the ball and then just putt it. Don’t worry about anything. And I did it.”
Just like the Yani of old.