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Sunday, April 1, 2012
Yani Tseng is human after all

By Mick Elliott

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- Holy shock therapy.

Yani Tseng played some pretty average -- by her standards, you might say lousy -- golf Sunday at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. She shot 1 over par and still only missed joining a playoff, won by Sun Young Yoo, by one shot. Her 30-foot birdie attempt on the 18th hole tracked until the very end.

"I think I was just trying too hard," Tseng said. "I think I needed just a little more luck to drop some putts.

"A little disappointed but not really. You know, it's not the end of the world. I'll come back next year and try to win this tournament."

Beginning the day tied for the lead, the world No. 1 never found a rhythm. And yet, she came within one shot of the playoff.

Yoo shot 69 and then beat I.K. Kim, who missed a 1-foot putt on the last hole that would have won, in a playoff.

Both began the day three shots behind Tseng.

"You don't have to play lights out," Tseng's swing coach Gary Gilchrist said. "I think 2 under today, and we would have been fine. For her, I don't think that would have been too difficult.''

Nobody saw it coming.

That's what happens when the best player in the world doesn't perform that way. Tseng was neither sharp nor on target. In contrast, Yoo was almost flawless, birdieing her final two holes to finish 9 under. She then birdied the first playoff hole.

Every expectation was for Tseng, with five career majors at the ridiculously young age of 23, to fill up another chapter in the LPGA history book. She arrived at Mission Hills Country Club for the season's first major having won three of the season's five events. Going into Sunday, she had led or shared the lead in 10 of the last 11 rounds.

There was nothing to suggest the day would be anything but the next verse, same as the first.

As always, 70 minutes before her afternoon tee time, Tseng, in a trademark Sunday pink shirt, strolled calmly to the range, smiling and acknowledging well-wishers. After 10 minutes of stretching, she began working her way through a bucket of range balls, starting with pitching wedge, followed by 7-iron, 4-iron, hybrid, 3-wood, driver -- every third club.

Then it was off to the putting green and the first tee. Surely the next stop would be the champion's traditional leap into Poppie's Pond, the water hazard that adjoins the 18th green.

"On the range, I was pretty excited," Gilchrist said. "She looked pretty good warming up."

A collection of huge banners and posters, held by fans, welcomed her to the first tee. "Ni-Sanity" was one of them. Others were written in her native language.

She noticed.

"See that," Tseng said to caddie Jason Hamilton, smiling as she pointed to one of the messages.

And then, nothing about the day made a lick of sense.

Tseng pushed her opening drive into the right rough and took a first-hole bogey. She missed the fairway on the par-5 second -- the easiest hole of the week -- and had to grind to save par.

"Like starting the day bogey-bogey," Gilchrist said.

By that point, she was three shots out of the lead.

Making the turn at 3 over par, the chipper, smiling Tseng had given way to a frustrated golfer who looked like she was carrying the weight of Phil Mickelson on her shoulders.

"When you are trying to win a major and you are not comfortable out there, that's a real challenge," Gilchrist said.

But then she birdied No. 12 and 17.

After Kim missed a winning putt from the length of a spaghetti noodle, Tseng still had a chance.

She missed the fairway with her drive at the par-5 18th and was forced to lay up. Finally on the green, she was 30 feet away.

Until the very end, her putt looked as if it would fall.

"I did best in the end and still finished strong," she said.

Before Sunday, seven of the last eight times Tseng owned or shared the final-round lead, she went on to win. Interestingly, the only stumble since 2009 was last year's Kraft Nabisco, where she led by two going into the final day but lost to Stacy Lewis.

"I think Yani had a ton of pressure on her," Lewis said after shooting a final-round 66 to finish tied for fourth and two shots back. "The media, basically, from all the writings, had already given Yani the tournament. They did that last year too. I think that's a lot of pressure on anybody -- because she's still got to go out there and play a hard golf course.

"I can't say I'm surprised. I couldn't imagine having that much pressure."

And somehow coming within one.