Yani Tseng thrives on friendly competition

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

Yani Tseng has won three of five LPGA events this season and has done it with a smile.

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- Taiwan's Yani Tseng releases a little-girl giggle that belies her current position as women's golf's coldest assassin while she recalls a memory from her youth.

The story comes from when she was a preteen but already obsessed by the challenges and rewards of a foreign game. And it did not matter that at the time, her skills were only starting to develop.

"It was not OK not to win." Tseng said. "I always wanted to win in any sport I play. If I competed, I wanted to win. I do not like to lose.

"I was already betting with my coach on the golf course and I never beat him. One time, I remember, after 18 holes, I say, 'Let's play nine more.' And I lose again. So, I say, 'Nine more.' I lose. Nine more. That day we played like 45 holes. And I still didn't win. My coach say, he no longer want to play with me because I was too competitive."

It was not OK not to win. I always wanted to win in any sport I play. If I competed, I wanted to win. I do not like to lose.
LPGA No. 1-ranked Yani Tseng

Years later, the rest of the LPGA can feel his pain.

Now, 23 and in her fifth LPGA season, Tseng arrives at Mission Hills Country Club for this week's Kraft Nabisco -- the season's first major championship -- as The Yaninator, women's golf's version of consistency and persistence, operating as nerveless as a fictional machine come to life.

After Sunday's six-shot victory in the Kia Classic, Tseng has won three of this season's five LPGA events. She has 15 career LPGA titles and 35 worldwide victories. With five major victories, two last year, she is the youngest professional golfer -- male or female -- to reach the milestone. She has held the women's world No. 1 ranking since taking over the spot in February 2011.

"I haven't looked at all the numbers, but, yeah, that all sounds pretty good," she said.

In general, superstars throughout all sports share the same basic makeup. They are physically gifted, determined, confident and mentally tougher than rawhide.

Tseng is no different, except for the fact that she does it with a smile.

While most others -- from Tiger Woods to Kobe Bryant to Ray Lewis -- use their hard-earned aura of intimidation like a weapon, glaring and snarling every step of the way, Tseng has shown the ability to go about business while laughing, joking and waving her way around a golf course.

"A friendly assassin," said Ernie Huang, a longtime advisor to Tseng.

When Tseng first arrived on the LPGA in 2008, she spoke barely a word of English. Since then, she has thrown herself into the language, attending classes and working with a tutor. While a burden to start, Huang believes the language barrier might have been an early blessing.

"She knew how to win. Then she learned how to smile to overcome her lack of the language," he said. "She wanted fans to like her, but back then could not communicate well. Now she can and she is friendly while winning."

A retired biotech scientist, Huang was heavily involved in the junior golf association of his hometown San Diego in the early 2000s. During a trip to Taiwan in 2001 he met Tseng and her family and invited Yani to play in the Junior World Championships in San Diego.

After that, Tseng began spending much of her summers with "Uncle Ernie" and his family, which includes a daughter who is three years younger than Tseng. Now, Huang, 62, continues to assist Tseng as an unofficial handler and go-through guy.

Suffice to say, no one knows her better.

"She is such a special person," Huang said. "She hates to lose. Ever since she was a kid, she hated to lose and loved a challenge.

"If you look in her eyes -- you can't really see it on television -- but you look in her eyes and she's staring at you, you can just tell she hates to lose. Her eyes tell you, 'No, I'm not going to lose to you.'"

Facts say much the same.

Sunday's victory, her sixth in her past 12 events, was the seventh time in 12 career events Tseng won an event after leading or co-leading going into the final round. But more importantly, it was the seventh time in her past eight as a final-round leader that she went on to win. She was 0-for-4 in her first two seasons before hitting her stride as a closer.

Interestingly, the only time since 2009 that Tseng has failed to close the deal as a final-round leader was last year's Kraft Nabisco when Stacy Lewis came from two behind to win.

That result continues to be a raw nerve for Tseng. Back at her Orlando, Fla., home is the 2010 Kraft Nabisco trophy she won. Sitting inside it is an "Angry Bird" figurine that she was given during the 2011 edition of the tournament.

"I feel more pressure, but I feel confident, too," Tseng said of her role as tournament favorite anytime she shows up. "So it's kind of both ways.

"There's no easy way to win tournaments, because we have so many great, great players on the tour. You have to play good to win a tournament. It was hard to get lucky to win. I feel I still have a long way to go and I need to keep working hard and I have lots of things I need to learn, and players, every time I play with them, it was a great experience for me to build confidence every week and to learn something every week."

This year, on the way to winning three of five starts, Tseng's final-round scoring average has been 69.25. Last year, when she won seven times in 22 events, it was 69.

"I think what's she's been doing is really impressive," said past Kraft Nabisco champ Morgan Pressel. "Golf just seems easier for her than anyone else. Anytime you have a player like that, it raises the bar for everybody else. Right now, Yani doesn't even have the competition she would like. We need to step up our games. She's beating us pretty bad."

And doing it with that disarming grin.

"I think because I just focus on one shot at a time," Tseng said. "After I hit a tee shot, I can do whatever I want -- wave to the fans, talk to the caddies or other players.

"Then I can concentrate on the next shot again. It's very hard focus for five hours on the golf course. Emotion is very important to me. It's very easy to say it, but it's very hard to do it. The last few years, I'm getting much better. I really appreciate what I have right now."

Likewise for the LPGA.

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