Sun, Dec 21, 2008 - Page 13 News List

Small strokes, big strides

The tides are changing for Taiwanese golfers, who have been steadily making headlines internationally. Is a revival of the country’s former status as Asia’s golf kingdom near?

By Alison Jenner  /  CONTRIBUTING WRITER

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On a sweltering Sunday in June, thousands of spectators in the galleries at Bulle Rock Golf Course in Maryland watched a new star emerge at the McDonald’s LPGA Championship.

Pitted against the likes of Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa, no one expected Yani Tseng (曾雅妮), a 19-year-old rookie from Taiwan, to make much of an impact. But she outperformed the veterans, entered the final round four shots out of the lead and carded a 68 to finish at 12-under 276, tied with Maria Hjorth of Sweden, who posted a 71.

“Yani! Yani! Yani!” the crowd chanted as she entered into the fourth playoff with Hjorth.

“Just make this putt and win a major championship,” Tseng said she thought at the time.

Standing over her ball, Tseng gave it a tap and watched as the ball rolled nine inches (175cm) into the hole for a birdie. Cheers erupted. Tseng had just become the first player from Taiwan to win an LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) major. She had also just earned her first victory on the LPGA Tour and was the second-youngest player to win a major.

“I can’t believe I just won a major, and I’m a rookie!” said Tseng, who is currently third on the official money list with over US$1.75 million in earnings. “Everything came so fast.”

Five months later, Taiwanese golf was given another affirmative nod at the final hole at the UBS Hong Kong Open, watched by a 17,000-strong crowd.

After Lin Wen-tang (林文堂) narrowly missed a five-foot (1.5m) birdie at the 72nd hole to win the tournament in regulation play, the 34-year-old golfer from Taipei had to contend with a three-way playoff with Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy and Italy’s Francesco Molinari, who all carded a 15-under-par 265 after an enthralling final round.

What followed was an amazing two-hole playoff that saw Lin hit an impossible approach shot from behind the trees to within four feet (1.2m) of the pin to snatch a miraculous birdie in the first. Molinari too, saved a tough second shot outside the fairway but two-putted his way out of the playoff.

McIlroy matched Lin’s birdie and the duo returned to the 18th tee for another go. This time it was McIlroy’s turn to produce an equally incredible approach out of the trees to the back edge of the green. Lin’s second shot, however, was perfect, landing a foot (30cm) from the pin. When McIlroy’s birdie putt went wide, the Taiwanese tapped in and gained his first victory on the European Tour. In doing so, he also become the first Asian champion since Kang Wook Soon in 1998 to win that tournament. Incidentally, the winner of the inaugural Hong Kong Open in 1959 was also Taiwanese — Lu Liang-huan (呂良煥).

“Being able to win the 50th edition of the UBS Hong Kong Open is a personal breakthrough for me,” said Lin, currently in second place on the Asian Tour Order of Merit with earnings of US$820,839.

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Tseng’s and Lin’s impressive performances are just two examples of how Taiwanese golf is slowly inching towards reclaiming its previous status as “Asia’s golf kingdom.”

In the last few years, names such as Candie Kung (龔怡萍), who boasts four LPGA victories since turning pro in 2001, and Lu Wen-teh (呂文德), who lifted a record fourth Mercuries Taiwan Masters title in September, have also been brought up more frequently in the golf circuit.

“The Taiwanese players have been quite strong since the 1970s and the 1980s,” said Kyi Hla Han, Executive Chairman of Asian Tour, the official regional sanctioning body for professional golf in Asia. “They were among the strongest players in Asia back then.”

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