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Published: Thursday, 8/9/2012

COMMENTARY

Golf's mental lapses appear to haunt LPGA's top player

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Yani Tseng has been ranked atop the world of women's golf for 78 straight weeks. Yani Tseng has been ranked atop the world of women's golf for 78 straight weeks.
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Yani Tseng walked off the 18th green at Highland Meadows Wednesday looking and acting very much like the No. 1 player in the world -- big smile, high-fives with her pro-am partners -- not a golfer who has failed to break par in 12 of her last 13 rounds.

Tseng has been ranked atop the world of women's golf for 78 straight weeks and her margin is still formidable. That's not surprising considering she won three times during the first five weeks of the 2012 LPGA Tour schedule and opened with eight consecutive top-10 finishes.

That was a continuation of one of the most dominant seasons in tour history, which followed another of the most dominant seasons in LPGA lore. In just her fifth year on tour, Tseng has won 15 tournament titles, five of them major championships, and earned $8.5 million.

But we live in a what-have-you-done-lately world and the answer in Tseng's case is not much.

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Since the start of the Wegmans LPGA Championship on June 7, Tseng's stroke average is 74.8. Her tour-leading scoring average in 2011 was 69.66 and she was even better than that -- 69.58 -- this year before June 7.

Then everything changed and she opens the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic today with more than a tad of uncertainty.

She said Wednesday that this is not the first time she has dealt with adversity during her career, but it is the first time any of the rest of us has noticed.

"I've dealt with it before, at least a little, but I admit this is a different feeling," Tseng said. "I've strung a few bad tournaments together and people expect different, they expect better."

If this was something mechanical, a hitch in her giddy-up or a stance issue at address or an off-plane backswing, Tseng and her teaching pro and her caddie would have worked it out on the practice range by now.

"This is more mental," she said. "Golf is a lot like that."

Or, as Yogi Berra once said about baseball, "It's 90 percent mental and the other half is physical."

Golf is no different but getting a player to admit the game has invaded his or her head, and not in a positive way, is a rare deal.

Unless Jose Valverde is pitching, golf is the slowest of sports. It is a walk of several miles that takes four-plus hours and involves only sporadic action.

You are alone with your thoughts. If you are playing well, the thoughts are of the next shot. If you are playing poorly, the thoughts are of the last shot, the last putt, the last round, the last tournament, the last month.

Not that Yani Tseng is about to join Ian Baker-Finch in the broadcast booth or anything. She's still keeping it between the white stakes.

"I'm trying to get the feel back, to enjoy the game, to be happy as a person," she said. "I know that with a couple good rounds I'll be right back in it. I've played well before, so I don't worry about it. I just have to get through it."

Last week was an open date on the LPGA schedule, so Tseng headed for London and the Summer Olympics. She took in swimming, diving, archery, basketball, tennis, even table tennis. She watched the best in the world at their particular disciplines under the utmost pressure.

"It was inspiring," she said. "It was lots of fun. I didn't pick up a golf club. It was good for me."

Highland Meadows may or may not be. At 6,400 yards -- petite as pro tournament courses line up -- it often limits the arsenal available to a big-hitter like Tseng who averages a click more than 270 yards with her driver.

On the other hand, she's played in the Farr only once previously and managed a 15-under-par 269, good for a tie for sixth place in 2009. That could produce some good thoughts.

"You have to hit a lot of different shots and find the right spots," she said. "You have to play smart. I'm looking forward to it."

Spoken like the No. 1 player in the world, not a golfer swimming against par.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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