By now the whole world knows that Ya Ni Tseng won the inaugural Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship on her home soil with a bogey-free 66 that gave her a 5-shot margin of victory over Amy Yang and Azahara Munoz. I didn't get a chance to finish watching the final round until last night, and I didn't want to write about Tseng's 7th LPGA win of 2011 and 12th career victory on tour until I had time to reflect on what I saw and what I read from Hound Dog and bangkokbobby. So here's what I'm thinking.
First, I'm seeing from Ya Ni what we all got used to seeing from Annika and Lorena in their prime--the ability to stay cool while others are making big charges and respond with even bigger ones of their own. This ability to find another gear that no one else seems to have is what separates the great players from the near-great, and Ya Ni has found it in 2011. In front of what must be the biggest crowd she's ever played before, in the face of such great hope and expectations from an entire nation, and in response to phenomenal front 9s from playing partners Anna Nordqvist (a bogey-free 32) and Azahara Munoz (who offset her 1 bogey on the front with an eagle on the par-5 6th) that brought them to -12 and -11 for the week, respectively, Ya Ni simply birdied the 2nd to get to -11, then rattled off consecutive birdies on 6, 7, and 8 to get to -14, match their 32s, and keep the pressure squarely on their shoulders. But while they struggled on the back with the weight of that pressure--Nordqvist quickly fell 4 behind with back-to-back bogeys on 10 and 11 and Munoz immediately offset her 1 birdie on the side with a bogey on the 17th--Ya Ni kept making par after par until she rolled in a sweeping downhill 15-footer on 16 and nearly holed out a little wedge on the final par 5. Tseng's final round was so good that Amy Yang, who bounced back in a big way from the pair of doubles on her moving day back 9 that killed her chances to contend on Sunday, actually lost a shot to her, Morgan Pressel, who said that her 6-birdie, 1-eagle, tournament-record 65 was her best round of the year, only made up a single shot on her, and Cristie Kerr and Hee Young Park, who fired sizzling 66s of their own, couldn't make a dent in their 10- and 9-shot deficits at the start of the day.
Second, I'm seeing another level of consistency and steadiness from Ya Ni that she's been searching for since her rookie season. Tseng was the only player in the field to go under par all 4 rounds, to put together 3 rounds in the 60s, and to make only 5 bogeys (and no doubles) all week. Sure, she probably knew the course better than any other elite player in the field, but to perform in all kinds of wind at such a high level and then take the course apart when the winds died down on Sunday was unreal. Even when her putter let her down on Friday, she didn't panic and went back to making birdies in bunches all weekend. Her 67-66 finish over the final 2 rounds was 2 shots better than Pressel's, 4 shots better than Yang's, 7 shots better than Munoz's and Katie Futcher's, 8 shots better than Sun Young Yoo's, and 9 shots better than Nordqvist's--and those were the players who had very good weekends. Combine that hot finish with a solid start and it's no wonder nobody came within 4 shots of her for the week.
Third, I'm seeing other players not only crack under the pressure Tseng puts on them while they're fighting for the title, but also find themselves unable to sustain her level of excellence week after week. Ai Miyazato, who won 5 times last year and was tied with Tseng heading into Friday's round, could only make 6 birdies over her last 54 holes (Tseng made 16 over that same span). Na Yeon Choi, who was in a pair of dogfights with Ya Ni the previous 2 weeks, never got back under par after she doubled her 8th hole of the tournament back on Thursday and ended up T29 with Stacy Lewis, another player who could face Ya Ni down once but hasn't been able to keep pace with her ever since. Brittany Lang, who's been playing great golf in the 2nd half of the season, never got under par at any time this week, averaged a double a round, and ended up in a tie for 54th with In-Kyung Kim, Ryann O'Toole, and Tiffany Joh, who have each had plenty of peak performances this year. Suzann Pettersen, who came into the week talking tough, blew up in the wind on moving day and was never a factor on Sunday. Tseng's lead in the Rolex Rankings on #2 Pettersen is now so large that #10 Lewis isn't even averaging that many points per event! Tseng now has her largest lead of the year in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index, on the LPGA money list (where's she's now won more than twice as much as #2 Kerr and has a real chance to become the 2nd player in tour history to break the $3M barrier!), and in scoring average on tour (where she's a whopping 1.2 strokes lower than #2 Kerr!).
The only questions left are how great Ya Ni's year can get and how much history she's going to end up making in 2011. She's won 9 times on major tours around the world, she's already #15 on the LPGA's career money list, she's about 1/3 of the way to catching Annika Sorenstam in winnings on tour (although only 1/6 of the way in wins), and she's got at least 20 Hall of Fame points guaranteed by the end of the season. I'm just hoping she reconsiders her apparent decision to skip the Mizuno Classic (at least going by her post-round comments on Sunday)--why not go for a double-digit victory total on the LPGA in 2011? Heck, if she can play in China on the LET (and LAGT and CLPGA) this week, why not tee it up in Japan the following week? At this point, I wouldn't put anything past the founder of the Tseng Dynasty!