Crowds in Taiwan show genuine love for LPGA

Azahara Munoz signs her way through a crowd of spectators after the first round of the Sunrise LPGA Championship.

Azahara Munoz signs her way through a crowd of spectators after the first round of the Sunrise LPGA Championship.

YANG MEI, Taiwan – Azahara Munoz just wanted to go to the restroom. But. Every. Step. She took. Fans swarmed.

“That’s not me,” Munoz said as a fan held out a photo of Cristie Kerr. The vast majority of these Taiwanese fans are attending an LPGA event for the first time, so one can excuse the confusion. Tournament officials have capped ticket sales for the weekend after reaching capacity at 22,000. 

Munoz was mobbed by autograph seekers even before she teed off on Thursday. Before she shot 66 on a rainy Friday and held a share of the lead with Anna Nordqvist at the Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship. Tournament hero Yani Tseng trails by two strokes, after a pedestrian 71. 

The Solheim Cup, Munoz said, gave her the jolt she needed. The 2010 LPGA Rookie of the Year got off to a sluggish start for her sophomore year. She called her ball-striking in Thailand and Singapore “horrendous” and sought the advice of her long-time Spanish instructor. In April, she started making swing changes and lost her confidence. 

“I thought that I just couldn’t play good anymore,” she said.

For years, Munoz took the club too far inside to make a divot. She accomplished quite a bit hitting it thin, but felt it was time to make a change. She kept at the new swing path and started to compress the ball several months ago, resulting in extra yardage and a little dirt.

“Once you start playing good in a few tournaments, it’s easy to stay on top,” Munoz said. “The other way around, too. You may be playing good but finishing 30th, 30th, 30th, and then you get stuck there. Solheim made me realize that I’m a good player, and I think that was what I needed to step it up.”

Munoz carded four rounds in the 60s last week in Malaysia and finished third, a season best. Before that, she had cracked the top 25 on the LPGA only twice this year. She’s 29th on the money list.

• • •

Yani Tseng doesn’t want to admonish the thousands of eager fans who came out to support Taiwan’s first LPGA event. But it needed to be said.

“On No. 6, I did say, ‘Please take the camera out before I play or after I play,’ ” Tseng said. 

Far too many clicks. 

“They just take pictures all the time,” Munoz said. “We were, like, backing off and yelling at the end.”

After Thursday’s autograph chaos, Tseng knew it wouldn’t be possible to sign after Friday’s round. So she carried a few dozen autographed logoed stickers with her outside the scoring area and passed them out to kids. Her path to the media center was a nightmare of congestion. One fan even shoved what looked like a large oil painting into her cart in an effort to get it signed. 

“I want to be safe, too, because everyone is trying to push each other,” Tseng said. “It’s very dangerous. It is getting better, but still …”

Tseng even drew a crowd in media dining when she stopped for a bite to eat while waiting for her news conference to start. Officials expected crowds in the neighborhood of 3,000 to 4,000 fans on Thursday and sold nearly 12,000 tickets. Crowds on Friday looked just as strong.

Imagine what the weekend will bring.

• • •

Stacy Lewis couldn’t figure out why the Taiwanese edia focused on her when she arrived at the airport in Taipei earlier this week. On Thursday, she signed autographs for an hour because that’s how long it took her to get from the ninth green to the clubhouse. 

The reason: Lewis went toe to toe with their beloved Tseng at the Kraft and took her down. For that, she’s revered over here.

• • •

USC freshman Doris Chen is playing under her Taiwanese name, Yen-Ning, this week. She slipped to a 77 after opening with 71. Chen has played only once for USC this fall and is 48th in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. The Trojans are playing in the Pac-12/SEC Challenge this week, their third and final event of the semester.

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