Michelle Wie has been heralded as the alpha and omega of women’s amateur golf, a singular talent with a 6-foot-1 frame that casts an intimidating shadow. Ya-Ni Tseng (pronounced SING) is a virtual unknown with a sly smile and a go-for-broke persona.
Underdogs of Tseng’s ilk, however, feed on misplaced public perception. And with each booming drive and each crucial putt during the final of the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links June 27, the seemingly impregnable wall that Wie had built all week at steamy Golden Horseshoe Golf Club crumbled away. Finally, on the 36th hole of an epic match, not even golf’s most recognizable 14-year-old was surprised when her little-known opponent closed out the match with an 8-footer for birdie and a 1-up victory.
“I’m really not intimidated by Michelle,” said Tseng through Ernie Huang, her American host and translator. “I look at myself as a long hitter, and my friends who played in this tournament watched Michelle and they told me, ‘You’re going to do fine and you’re just as good.’ ”
After six days of near-flawless play, Wie began the final match in unfamiliar territory, down two holes through six. But Tseng’s sloppy play, four bogeys in an eight-hole stretch, opened the door for Wie to build a 4-up lead, but even then things didn’t feel right.
“Even though I was 2 up (through 18 holes), I felt like I was 5 down because I lost so many holes in a row,” said Wie, the tournament’s defending champion.
Despite her concerns, Wie remained in the lead throughout most of the final round but it was an uneasy advantage.
“She has to get the honors,” warned Gary Gilchrist, Wie’s coach and the director of golf for the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, at the 30th hole. “If she doesn’t, Tseng can win.”
Two holes later, Tseng squared the match with a 6-footer for birdie. Although she blew her next tee shot into a hazard and fell behind again, the 15-year-old remained unflappable.
“I did not panic because it’s not the last hole,” Tseng said of her wayward drive at No. 15. “I knew I still had a chance.”
She also had plenty of experience in similar situations. A day earlier she outlasted perennial contender In-Bee Park, also 15, in the semifinals, 1 up, and pulled out a last-minute victory over Ashley Grier in Round 3 with a birdie at the 22nd hole.
Wie, on the other hand, didn’t have a match reach the 18th hole before the final and had trailed just once, during her second-round match against Melissa Martin.
“Nothing really worked out for me today,” said Wie, who was 1 under in the final with four birdies and three bogeys. “I just played terribly. I think I played the worst that I’ve played all week.”
Seemingly feeding off Wie’s substandard performance, Tseng refused to fade like so many of the teen sensation’s opponents. Tseng never trailed by more than two holes during the final 18 and the teen from Taiwan seemed affected by neither the sizable gallery nor Wie’s growing mystique.
“Match play is a game of momentum,” Gilchrist said. “This morning (Tseng) was pretty much done, but her caddie told her to keep going. It’s always dangerous, especially with an underdog.”
Momentum is not normally something Tseng has trouble finding. When she began the summer with a dismal round of 77 at last month’s U.S. Women’s Open local qualifier in California, she handled it in signature style – with humor and hard work.
“After the Women’s Open qualifier she said, ‘I’m giving up golf and turning pro to play pool,’ ” Huang said. “She was joking, but what it really did was make her work harder.”
Playing pool and surfing the Internet are what Tseng, whose nickname is “Ruby,” likes to do away from the golf course. On it, beating the odds seems to be her new penchant.
“She wanted to play Michelle, that’s why she came here,” Huang said. “It was the experience she has been thinking about for a long time.”
When she made it to match play, the only other name on the bracket she noticed was Wie’s.
“I was excited because I would have an opportunity to play with Michelle,” said Tseng, who has been spending her summers in San Diego as the guest of Huang since she first came to the United States in 2001 to play the Junior World Championship. “There was no chance I’d be eliminated early.”
There also was no chance she’d change her daring style with the match on the line at the final hole, but she did consider it. With a delicate lie in the rough and 225 yards to the pin, Tseng considered laying up. That thought didn’t last long. Moments later, she ripped her 3-wood into a front bunker, blasted to 8 feet and calmly stroked in the winning birdie putt.
“Even if I didn’t carry the bunker (with her second shot at the par-5 closing hole), I’m comfortable with the sand,” said Tseng, who became the second-youngest player (behind Wie, who won last year’s WAPL at 13) to win a U.S. Golf Association championship open to adults. “That’s why I did it . . . right into the bunker.”
And right into the WAPL history books with an unmatched finish and an unlikely victory.