Monday, August 18, 2008

The 19th Hole: Tseng Still Learning

Yani Tseng is having a tremendous rookie season on the LPGA Tour. She has won a major championship – the LPGA Championship – and has made almost $1.5 million this season. She has five medal stand finishes other than her victory at Bulle Rock. All in all, it appears that Tseng is heading for great things on the LPGA Tour.

Sunday, though, was an indication that Tseng still has a ways to go before achieving that status on Tour. She entered the final round of CN Canadian Women’s Open with a four stroke lead. Normally, a lead of that size is pretty safe in pro golf. But, for whatever reason, it began to get away from Tseng on hole 3 with a bogey. After getting that stroke back on the fourth, Tseng went into a tailspin until a calming par at the 13th. In total, she dropped seven shots and mixed in two birdies. Her scorecard read 77 and she finished solo third place, behind winner Katherine Hull.

Tseng is such a consistent player that there have to be reasons for the collapse.

First, Tseng was paired with Se Ri Pak in the final round. Despite having won a major championship this year, there is almost no way that having Pak in the pairing did not make Tseng somewhat nervous. Perhaps that had something to do with the final round performance.

Second, this kind of situation has already cost Tseng wins this season. Tseng entered the final round of the State Farm Classic in Illinois with a two shot lead. On a course that yields low score, Tseng was unable to continue making birdies in the final round. She posted even par – better certainly that this Sunday – but it was only good enough to get her into a playoff with Ji Young Oh. Oh had the momentum in the playoff and put Tseng away with birdie on the first playoff hole.

Tseng said after her Saturday round in Ottawa that the experience in Illinois would help on Sunday. "I feel more pressure going into Sunday, but this is my second time (with the 54-hole lead), so I'm not quite as nervous," Tseng said. "There's not quite as much pressure as last time. This time I feel very good, I feel I'm ready to win."

The biggest reason, though, may be that it is very difficult to win a golf tournament going into the final round as an overwhelming favorite. In years of observation of golf, it seems that going wire-to-wire is many times over more difficult than picking off the leader from behind.

Tseng captured her win of this rookie campaign from behind. Almost all observers expected that Annika and Lorena would compete for title of LPGA Champion. Tseng felt little pressure and low expectations entering that final round. She playing stunningly well with Ochoa alongside and posted a final round of 68 – good enough for a playoff she would eventually win against Maria Hjorth.

This loss on Sunday is another step in the process of learning how to win. Lorena Ochoa went through the same maturation process on her way to the top of the world rankings. Ochoa, like all golfers, still struggles with being the frontrunner. Having owned the field for two days in Canada, Lorena could not muster a round under par on the weekend. An event that almost certainly appeared to be hers through 36 holes turned out to be a disappointment. These things do happen.

Still, the approach that Tseng is taking is the correct one. She is learning what it means to be a champion. The best lessons are the toughest and costliest to learn. Much better, though, that they are to happen in her rookie campaign. At the ripe old age of 19, Tseng will have years to take the lessons of this season and transform herself into one of the all time greats in the game. Hopefully, she will learn these lessons well.

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