What's Wrong With Yani?

By Ron Sirak Photos by Getty Images
July 30, 2012

Tseng got off to a strong start to 2012, but has played poorly of late.

This is my 40th year as a journalist -- 42 if you count the two years I worked on a newspaper while in college -- and 25th as a sports writer. In that time, one of the most remarkable years I witnessed by an athlete was in 2004 when Annika Sorenstam won eight times on the LPGA and twice more overseas as her marriage was falling apart. I never wrote about it at the time because it was her personal life and of no one's business. But it is noteworthy now because of the struggles with which Yani Tseng is dealing.

Suddenly, the best player in the woman's game is lost. It could be her right elbow, which she has had wrapped since February, or it could be the distractions that come with fame. And it just could be life. The thing fans tend to forget about the athletes they root for is that off-the-course personal distractions affect them just like they do those of us who do not possess their skills. Life intrudes at times for all of us -- even for the best player in the woman's game.

In any case, after winning three of the first five LPGA events this year -- and getting to 15 LPGA wins at the age of 23 with five majors -- Tseng has been outside the top 50 in her last four tournaments, missing the cut twice, including last week at the Evian Masters. She has played to a scoring average of 74.7 during that stretch, well above the 69.66 she led the tour with last year. Whatever the reason, Yani is suddenly not Yani.

And that sudden demise brings us to the fine line between great and truly special. Part of what made Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Kathy Whitworth, Mickey Wright and Sorenstam special is that winning never got old for them. Victories were not an end but a means to a greater goal. Each title won was filed away, almost as if it never existed and each new tournament was viewed as the most important event ever played. You have to wonder right now if that fire still burns in Yani's belly.

And somehow those special winners had the mental strength to maintain that focus even when life intruded. When Sorenstam filed for divorce in February of 2005 and I was asked how that would impact her career my response was that she would treat a bad marriage the same way she treated a bad shot -- she would let it go, put it in the past.

The hard part was making the decision, but once Annika makes up her mind, there is no one who commits to a decision better. We saw that on the golf course for 15 seasons. She played every shot as if it were the most important shot she would ever hit.

In 2005, after filing for divorce in February, Annika won 10 LPGA events, including two majors -- the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the LPGA Championship. Her focus was unshakeable. Now Sorenstam is happily married to Mike McGee and they have a daughter, Ava, and a son, Will. And when you talk to Sorenstam, there is a joy in her voice about being a mom that surpasses any satisfaction she found on the golf course.

The first time I heard that sound in Annika's voice, about two weeks after Ava was born Sept. 1, 2009, I knew Annika would never return to competitive golf. All that passionate energy she put into the game had found a new home -- her family. I knew she would never play tournament golf unless she was 100 percent committed to it, and that was no longer the case. And to fuel her competitive fire she had her many business ventures under the ANNIKA brand.

Perhaps that is the malaise Tseng is mired in at the moment. Perhaps her mind is not fully engaged in playing competitive golf. It happens to the best of players. Certainly, part of the slump by Woods had to do with off-course distractions as much as physical injuries and swing issues. The truly remarkable accomplishment by Nicklaus was staying as focused as he was for as long as he did, bookending his career with major championships 24 years apart.

Will Yani get her game back? Almost certainly. She is just too talented to continue to play like this. Perhaps her mind has gone on vacation and will return soon. Perhaps she is dealing with private matters of which we have no knowledge, like Annika in 2004. Remember, at the same age, Sorenstam had none of her 72 LPGA wins or 10 major championships. Yani has plenty of time to get it back.

Will Tseng be able to find the focus of her mentor, Sorenstam, whose home she bought at Lake Nona and whose trophy case she wants to replicate? That's the real question. Winning is one thing; piling win upon win is something else altogether. That's the difference between greatness and being truly special. And that is the crossroads facing Tseng right now.