• Editor’s Note: This story appeared in the Dec. 10 issue of Golfweek.
ORLANDO, Fla. – The most extraordinary athletes have big hearts.
Yani Tseng, an athlete at the pinnacle of her sport, exposed a vulnerable heart to fans who stuck around to hear her five-page Player of the Year speech Sunday night. At the end, she addressed her parents: “In our family, we rarely say ‘I love you’ to each other,” Tseng, from Taiwan, said through heaving sobs. “I don’t recall the last time we hugged each other tightly. My dad (Mao Hsin) told me not to mention them, even if I have the opportunity to say my appreciation here. He reminded me once again yesterday. But here I am, and I really want to say wo ai ni (I love you). I would like to dedicate this award to both of them.”
That kind of transparency is welcome on a tour dominated by foreign stars. Any fan with a pulse can connect with such raw emotion and gut-level honesty. Tseng’s mother, Yu-Yun Yang, ran out to give her daughter a warm embrace as Yani finished her speech. Her father stayed hidden in the crowd behind a camera.
At the start of the LPGA Tour Championship, six players were in the running for year-end accolades, and they represented five countries. Cristie Kerr was the only American. It’s difficult to imagine the tour’s diverse landscape changing any time soon, which means it’s up to Tseng and others to find ways beyond fantastic golf to entertain fans.
To that point, Tseng started a monthlong English program the day after the season ended. On Monday, the first Taiwanese player to win the LPGA’s POY award was sitting in an Orlando classroom at 7 a.m., ready to learn. The class is five days per week, three hours per day.
Na Yeon Choi, who led the tour in earnings and scoring average, has a similar dedication to learning English. The South Korean shied away from saying much on camera Sunday evening, but one-on-one, her ability to communicate has improved dramatically, thanks to private lessons on tour. The confidence she needs to make it happen on TV will come.
“I think I did awesome,” Choi told scribes after her round.
Choi earned $1,871,166 in 2010 to beat World No. 1 Jiyai Shin by $88,039. Choi, in her third season, won so much money that she had trouble keeping track of it. When Choi’s parents came to visit her in Orlando after the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in November, they found a soggy U.S. Women’s Open check sitting outside her front door. Choi had forgotten to cash it. Its value: $284,468.
The best word to describe Choi’s presence on tour is relentless. She’s ever-present on leaderboards, and tough to shake. Her instructor, Kevin Smeltz, must be careful not to give Choi all the information she desires. Her passion to succeed and perfect often leaves her in overdrive, another common trait among the world’s best.
“It’s almost like throttling back,” Smeltz said. “I tell her, ‘Let’s just keep whittling away; you’re playing great.’ ”
Choi had a chance to sweep all the yearend accolades until bogeys on the 15th and 17th holes derailed her chances. She, like Kerr, needed a victory to unseat Tseng as Player of the Year and Shin as World No. 1. Choi tied for fifth; Kerr tied for third.
“Well, I gave it my best shot,” said Kerr, who ranked this as her most consistent year since turning pro in ’97. “I didn’t get off to a good start at all, which is an understatement.”
Shin, who had an emergency appendectomy in June, struggled with stomach pain and fatigue the rest of the year. In September, she wasn’t even sure if she’d make the trip to Orlando for the season finale. Shin took three weeks off in Korea before the Tour Championship and said she needed to find her concentration for the week. Apparently the focus wasn’t there, as she missed the cut.
Ai Miyazato, a five-time winner on tour this season, had trouble keeping her mind off the hardware during her opening-round 80 and also missed Sunday’s play.
Tseng went home Saturday afternoon and watched the cut line move online. She worried about what she’d wear to the course on Sunday afternoon for the awards presentation if she didn’t play. “Should I wear jeans?” Tseng wondered needlessly. She made the cut on the number.
Tseng also thanked several players in her speech: Shin, Kerr, Choi and Suzann Pettersen, noting how much they push her to get better. Most of all, she thanked her idol and neighbor, Annika Sorenstam, the woman who dominated this award for much of Tseng’s life.
Tseng points to a conversation she had with Sorenstam earlier in the year as a catalyst for a season in which she won three tournaments, including two majors.
“She’s always saying, ‘You know where I live; you can just stop at my door and just ask me a question,’ ” Tseng said of Sorenstam. After winning the Kraft Nabisco, Tseng knocked on Sorenstam’s door to deliver a check for her foundation.
“I was glad she was not at home because I didn’t know what I was going to say,” Tseng said. “I was so nervous.” Tseng lives in Sorenstam’s old house in Lake Nona.
In the study, there’s a trophy case that Sorenstam had built to house her vast collection. Tseng laughs when she notes that the previous owner crammed five trophies into each opening where she’s hoping to put one.
“Now I’m going to put one more in,” Tseng said, beaming. “That definitely deserves a hug.”