ORLANDO, Fla. – Yani Tseng helped carry the camera gear into the center of The Mall at Millenia. “Who are we shooting today?” she asked, a hint of mischief in her laugh. Tseng stood where Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny have delighted children during packed holiday seasons, gamely posing in the most highly trafficked section of the upscale mall.
Later, outside Neiman Marcus, mall patrons stared as they walked past the World No. 1, who looked leisurely in a white Lacoste hoodie, argyle sweater and ripped jeans. If there’s any place other than the golf course where Tseng feels in her element, it’s at a shopping mall. When she won the Ricoh Women’s British Open last summer, Tseng went straight to a mall in Manchester, England, and loaded up on shoes, clothes and accessories.
“I can wear everything new to the airport,” Tseng said with a youthful glow that tends to put everyone around her at ease.
No matter where Tseng puts on a show, she welcomes an audience. As she racked up four consecutive titles to start 2011, Tseng noticed more fans were following (though she’s not at all satisfied with the 11,480 “likes” on her Facebook page). When Tseng returned home to Taiwan in March as the newly minted World No. 1, she was pleased to find that more people recognized her.
Now she’s days away from defending her title at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA’s first major. And though she hasn’t followed through on learning how to swim, the three-time major winner isn’t afraid to make an even bigger splash in Poppy’s Pond this spring.
“When Kraft is coming and they talk about how it feels to defend my trophy, I’m not afraid to talk,” Tseng said. “I say I want to win, and I’m looking forward to it.”
That confidence was absent three months ago. Though Tseng enjoys a crowd, she was paralyzed at the start of the year by what kind of pressure 2011 might hold. She took a wine glass over to her neighbor and idol Annika Sorenstam as a gift during the offseason and sat down for some advice. Tseng was scared the game that brought her 2010 Player of the Year honors suddenly would be crushed under the weight of expectation.
“More negative things than positive,” she said.
Sorenstam delivered words only a woman of her stature can express. Few know what it’s like to face the pressure of the career Grand Slam, World No. 1 and Player of the Year. Never mind that Tseng, who lives in Sorenstam’s
old house in Lake Nona, is a merely 22 years old. She left the conversation a changed player.
“All the media is going to talk about it,” Tseng said of the expectant accolades. “Well, I won. They talk about the truth. I was kind of afraid to face it.
“She just told me to face it.”
Tseng, who used to live in Beaumont, Calif., considers the Kraft Nabisco a home tournament. It’s a relaxed atmosphere for Tseng, whose strategy on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course improves every year. She appreciates that she can work the ball and use all 14 clubs. Tseng, who last year won by one stroke over Suzann Pettersen, knows when to be aggressive.
“I see a different Yani out on the golf course than when we were growing up,” Paula Creamer said. “She’s very deliberate. You can just see her thinking so much out there. Her putting is such a big difference.”
When asked for the secret to her strong putting in ’11, Tseng smiledand said: “I’m happy in my heart.”
It’s a simple explanation. Yet the way Tseng describes the LPGA as a “big family” leads one to believe there’s no place she’d rather be than inside the ropes.
“I’m just happy to see all the friends,” she said. “You’re kind of just chillin’. ”
Not every aspect of Tseng’s life, however, feels like a party. She gave the world a glimpse into the pressure she feels from family in a tearful Player of the Year speech. Tseng told fans gathered around the 18th green at Grand Cypress, after last fall’s Tour Championship, “In our family, we rarely say ‘I love you’ to each other” and added that hugs are hard to come by. When recently asked what her father, Mao Hsin, said after she climbed to World No. 1, Tseng replied: “My dad is very happy. He didn’t say anything.
“My mom said: ‘Yeah, I’m World No. 1’s mother now.’ ”
And then Tseng filled the car with laughter.
After the Tour Championship in December, Tseng took English lessons for three weeks. She took two weeks off for the holidays before heading to Taiwan for her first event of the year. Her mother, Yu-Yun Yang, caddied in the final round, fulfilling a dream. Tseng gave her mother the winner’s check for her efforts: $70,000. Little did she know that three more first-place checks would quickly follow.
When Tseng returned to Orlando from her world tour in early March, she stayed on her sofa for several days, jet-lagged and mentally exhausted. Her Christmas tree still was decorated.
Tseng’s sore muscles were a giveaway to trainer Andrea Doddato that she hadn’t worked out too hard on the road. The first time Tseng threw a medicine ball at Doddato, the trainer was stunned. She immediately asked Tseng if the person who taught her the game simply told her to swing as hard as she could.
“How did you know?” Tseng asked.
Because, Doddato replied, most Asian players concentrate so hard on the mechanics at a young age that while their swings are pretty, they lack explosiveness. Tseng learned to swing with abandon as a 6-year-old under the watchful eye of her father, along with instructor Tony Kao.
“She’s got the most amount of power I’ve ever seen out of a girl,” Doddato said.
Gary Gilchrist, Tseng’s swing coach, jokes that everyone knows Tseng isn’t a workout specialist. She doesn’t wake up every morning itching to go to the gym. That’s why Doddato switches the program on a regular basis, to keep Tseng interested.
Gilchrist preaches the importance of rest to juniors at his academy. The philosophy applies even more to Tseng as demands on her time personal increase.
“People always think athletes need to work harder,” Gilchrist said. “We try to work smarter.”
These days, Tseng carries on a conversation in English with relative ease, tripping on only a handful of words during a lengthy interview. In an interesting twist, Tseng spends so much time answering questions in English that she gets confused by Mandarin translations.
“Sometimes, I want to say ‘patient’ or ‘I hung in there’ and I don’t know how to say it in Chinese,” she said. “I feel like my Chinese grammar is terrible.”
Tseng finds Taiwanese connections wherever she can in Orlando. She recently held a small party at her house to celebrate her No. 1 ranking and invited Taiwanese friends whom she met at the food court in the Florida Mall. At The Mall at Millenia, she’s an honored guest at Southwest Grille, also owned by Taiwanese.
When not dining alongside packs of tourists, Tseng can be found trying on hats at Urban Outfitters or picking up a new belt at Lacoste, her clothing sponsor. She raves about shopping in New York City – “what’s the place I like in New York . . . something ‘ho’? ” – particularly SoHo.
“Life is good,” Tseng said, shortly before slipping through what used to be Sorenstam’s front door.
It’s clear she’s at home with being World No. 1.