If Yani Tseng wins the 67th U.S. Women's Open championship this week, she will become the youngest professional golfer in the history of the sport to capture a career grand slam.
Think about that for a moment. She will have won all four major championships faster than Tiger Woods did. And you don't need me to tell you where he stands in the annals of the game of golf. He is one of the best to ever play it.
Well, so is Yani Tseng.
"I try not to think about it much," Yani admitted in a one-on-one conversation we had recently. "But, everyone is talking about breaking Tiger's record so it's hard for me not to think about it."
At only 23 years old, Yani is already one-up on Tiger for being the youngest golfer, male or female, to collect five major championship victories, but she has yet to capture the U.S. Open. Her next best chance is this week as the season's third major begins at the beautiful but intimidating Pete Dye designed River Course at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wisconsin.
The U.S. Women's Open was last played here in 1998 when 20-year-old Se Ri Pak posted a six-over-par score on her way to a playoff victory over Jenny Chuasiriporn. That total tells you how difficult this course is. Finishing somewhere around par should be a good number this year. Blackwolf Run will play about 500 yards longer than it did in '98 but at one stroke higher to par.
"I've set the U.S. Open as my goal to win," Yani said. "Even if I don't break Tiger's (grand slam) record, I wish one day I will win the U.S. Open. I'm very excited to play at Blackwolf Run this year and to try to win this tournament."
Yani's major championship accomplishments are awe-inspiring. As a result, she has spent 73 weeks atop the Rolex Rankings as the No. 1 female golfer in the world. Her performances have been, in a word, dominant. And she has been recognized by Time Magazine as one of the most influential people in the world.
So, I asked her if she has spent much time really thinking about what she has already accomplished at such a young age.
"I have thought about it the past couple years," she said after considering the question for a moment. "But, one of my big dreams was to become the first Chinese player to win a major and that happened so quickly when I first came out on tour. It gave me a lot of confidence that I could play well out here. I worked hard and I learned a lot from the mistakes I made the first couple years. So, I could see I was playing well but I could also see that I wanted to win more tournaments."
Yani already has a whopping 15 career victories to her credit and she started the 2012 season as if she were going to steamroll the rest of the LPGA Tour, with wins at three of the first five tournaments; the Honda LPGA Thailand in February, and back-to-back wins at the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup and the Kia Classic in March.
She added top-10s at five other tournaments before she experienced what can only be described as a mini-slump.
A T-12 finish at the Shoprite LPGA Classic wouldn't have been a big deal for any other player, but it was almost unfathomable that Yani Tseng could finish outside the top 10 at a tournament. That's how good she is.
Then the unthinkable—a T-59 at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, a tournament she won by ten shots just a year ago—and a missed cut at last week's Walmart NW Arkansas Championship set off an alarm for almost everyone except Yani, who has remained calm while keeping things in perspective.
Yani said she was very surprised at her performance at the LPGA Championship, but admitted the game of golf is not an easy one, even if she makes it look that way most of the time.
"I work very hard," she said. "But, I put too much expectation on myself—way high. I shot 19-under-par the year before and, for me to finish four-over-par after the first round this year, it became a totally different tournament for me than last year.
"I think it's really a mental game. I can still play well, but when I hit a few bad shots, I began to question myself. I wasn't allowing myself to make even one mistake and that's not right. I learn as I go. I think it was a great experience for me. I learned a lot in Rochester that week."
So, is it safe to say she's feeling the pressure of being the best?
"Oh, I do," she said immediately, and emphatically. "I feel much, much more pressure now that I'm world No. 1. It's so hard to stay at the top. Everyone is going to talk about me every week and everybody is expecting me to play well. The pressure is ... it's very hard not to think about it."
But, Yani deals with it the way any great player would. She said she simply tries to focus on the things she can control while enjoying herself and having more fun on the golf course without worrying about too much.
Still, the achievement of being elected into the World Golf Hall of Fame is well within her reach—remarkably close when you consider her young age—and it's one she admits to holding close to her heart as a career goal.
"One day I want to be a Hall of Famer," she said. "Other than that, I don't really think about how many wins I have. I don't even know. I don't count them. I just try to focus on one tournament at a time."
The here and now is the 2012 U.S. Women's Open. If Yani wins this week, she adds an impressive milestone to her growing legacy. It's a process that will likely one day earn her a place at the top of all of golf's record books.
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