Taiwan embraces Tseng, who shares LPGA lead

The crowd cheers for hometown hero, Yani Tseng, at the first tee prior to Thursday's round. Thousands showed up to watch the action.

The crowd cheers for hometown hero, Yani Tseng, at the first tee prior to Thursday's round. Thousands showed up to watch the action.

YANG MEI, Taiwan – Everyone wanted to capture the moment. Cell phones, digital cameras, even iPads created a digital frenzy Thursday as thousands of fans clicked through Yani Tseng’s first strike at the Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship.

Tournament organizers think this was the most well-attended first round of a golf tournament in Taiwan’s history, trumping Tiger Woods’ appearance at the 1999 Johnnie Walker Classic. Tseng didn’t disappoint, birdieing the 18th to finish 4 under and tie Ai Miyazato for the early lead.

The start, however, wasn’t so promising. Tseng, who grew up roughly 30 minutes from Sunrise in Linkou, backed off her second shot on the opening hole because of overzealous photographers and proceeded to hit a poor approach shot. She left her chip shot 15 feet short and two-putted for bogey.

“Everybody is going to make bogey. I just made bogey on the first hole,” Tseng said. “I just told myself to relax; it’s OK.”

Tseng has remained No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings for 36 consecutive weeks, distancing herself from the rest of the tour, thanks in large part to a stronger mind. She shook off that first-hole blemish with a short birdie putt at No. 3 and was met with a chorus of “jai ho” cheers. (“Jia you” literally means to put gas in your tank. Go! Go!) Sunrise is a familiar setting for Tseng. As a junior, she came here for monthlong stays with the Taiwanese national team to prepare for the Asian Games.

Crowds lined the fairways three deep, and the rest scampered up mounds and into the trees to catch a glimpse of Tseng. Justin Bieber’s “Baby” ringtone was silenced near the sixth green shortly before Tseng putted for eagle. Cell phones rang frequently in Tseng’s group, and fans usually answered them. Tseng will have to wait for proper golf etiquette to catch up with her growing popularity, though Suzann Pettersen found the crowds to be friendlier than other international venues.

Anna Nordqvist paired with Tseng and said Thursday felt like Sunday at a major. Nordqvist birdied the last hole to shoot 3 under.

“It’s ‘no cameras,’ but everyone has a camera,” Nordqvist said. “I think I really did a good job of staying in the bubble today. It’s so much fun.”

Two security guards dressed in black polos and jeans walked step-by-step with Tseng as she weaved her way through an adoring crowd. Grown men sported temporary tattoos of the Taiwanese flag on their cheeks, and young girls held up heart-shaped cutouts. One woman even wore bunny ears. Perhaps because in the Chinese calendar, it’s the Year of the Rabbit.

Tseng’s smiling face graces the side of city buses and tournament signage throughout Taipei, the capital city.

Further proof that she’s a rock star in her native land: the personal friends who followed Tseng on Thursday were all in the entertainment business, including famous singers and a TV host.

It will be interesting to see if Tseng’s talent and personality grow the game in Taiwan the same way Se Ri Pak revolutionized golf in South Korea. Two weeks ago, Tseng and Na Yeon Choi battled in front of 23,000 Korean fans in the final round of the LPGA HanaBank Championship. That’s massive, by LPGA standards.

Even more impressive, the women’s event was held opposite the men’s Korean Open, won by Rickie Fowler. TV ratings were four times higher for the LPGA tournament.

“I wish one day I could be like Se Ri, bring all the kids, all the juniors to the LPGA to come play with (me),” Tseng said.

Volunteers stood hand-in-hand behind the 18th green, trying to create a tunnel for Tseng to pass through after she signed her scorecard. Tseng scribbled on two hats before the fans broke through the barrier. Overwhelmed and visually impaired from all the bodies and headwear being flung in her direction, Tseng was whisked away in a cart when her security cut the autograph session short.

“I tried to sign as many as I can, but I couldn’t do it,” she said. “We were thinking maybe signing my own hats, my own things, to give to them.”

Truly, the heart of a champion.

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