REARDON: Catch 22
Imagine, if you will, as the entire golf community awaits the return of Tiger Woods and the answer to the questions about his future, a youngster comes along, a twenty-year-old, whose blowout win of a major offers a possible foreshadowing of the next great player in the game.
Imagine this player showed signs of this potential as early as their teens. Imagine an entire continent of golfers hoping wishfully that this young talent will be not just the best from their world, but the best in the world.
If you are thinking that player has already arrived, and he comes to us from the Emerald Isle, you would need to adjust your compass. Because your guess is a half a world off.
Yes, it is true that Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy offered a foreshadowing of greatness when he posted a six-shot win at Congressional. But young Rory’s success has to be overshadowed by the short career of Taiwan’s Yani Tseng.
Less than a fortnight after McIlroy shattered records at the U.S. Open, Tseng blitzed the field by ten at the LPGA Championship. While McIlroy became the youngest to take the title since Bobby Jones in 1923, Tseng became the youngest player ever to get to four major titles at age 22.
This week, as Tseng tees it up at the U.S. Women’s Open in Colorado, she will be looking to complete a career Grand Slam. And did I say she was only 22? She would beat Woods’ all-time record by two years. If she picks up her fifth major win, she would trail only Woods, Julie Inkster and Karrie Webb among the under-50 set for total majors on her resume. If she posts a win this week at the Broadmoor—a big if to be sure—she would make it three straight victories on the sporadic schedule of the LPGA Tour.
So why is it taking so long for the world to discover the most reliable winner in major championship golf today? She flashed early enough for all to see. While the golf world was building a wing in the Hall of Fame for Michelle Wie in her mid-teens, they failed to notice that it was Tseng who won the final over Wie at the USGA Publinx in Virginia—when she was just 15.
At 19, she was the youngest player to win the LPGA Championship the first time around in 2008. After a major void in her sophomore season, she posted at least one major win the next two years. In less than four years on the LPGA Tour, she has eight wins, 41 top-10 finishes and 10 additional wins around the world.
I have heard people group her with the “rest of the Koreans” who have populated the “Asian Invasion” on the LPGA Tour, and questioned whether she can be accorded the kind of respect other players have gotten (with lesser credentials) because of the language barrier. In my own mind, my first thought is that her clubs are multilingual, but this non-Korean attacks the language obstacle with the same attitude she attacks dangerous pins.
Tseng not only doesn’t need an interpreter, she is absolutely chatty when it comes to doing interviews in English. She may stumble from time to time, but those same critics probably couldn’t navigate her language at P.F. Chang’s.
The Korean women winners all point to Se Ri Pak as the player who blazed the trail for them on the LPGA Tour, and Pak may still be the only one whose success ran deeper than a handful of years. A fifth major would tie Tseng with Pak, who made her American debut at Forest Hills in the GHP Heartland Classic, and durability may be the only question you can justifiably hang on the young star.
She is the complete package of golfing skills. She is long in the company of the longest on the LPGA Tour. She hits greens at a percentage matching those of Annika Sorenstam, the player whose old house she now lives in. Her putting stats have improved every year on Tour. And perhaps, most importantly, she is fearless, in her game and in her goals.
Her current caddie, Tom Thorpe, who looped for both Nancy Lopez and Lorena Ochoa at one time, says Tseng has a pin seeker mentality. Unlike Sorenstam, who played the percentages with fairways and greens, Tseng is the Orient Express between the ropes. She has led the Tour in birdies two of her first three years, and currently tops the list this year by an amazing 29 over Christie Kerr.
When I asked her about the possibility of a Career Slam completion this week, after her win at the State Farm Classic, she didn’t trot out the safe “one round at a time” answer even Woods uses with caution. She couldn’t wait for the chance. “Yeah, I already think about that,” she said. “I’m prepared for that. I’m prepared for winning the Grand Slam and I don’t feel any pressure.”
In two weeks, Rory McIlroy will face the pressure of his own Open Championship week and the expectations that he might be the next great player in the game.
He needn’t worry about that latter burden; she’s already here and playing for more history this week.
Dan Reardon has covered 75 major championships, five Ryder Cups, dozens of PGA, LPGA and Senior PGA Tour events. Visit CBS Local St. Louis for additional golf coverage.