FEATURE: Yani Tseng has conquered golf; now for the US

TOUGH TASK::The Taiwanese golf sensation may be a superstar at home and in Asia, but she still has to crack the US market — difficult for an Asian sportswoman to achieve

NY Times News ServiceORLANDO, FLORIDA

Fri, Dec 09, 2011 - Page 2

It is the all-American girl’s study, as conceived by a Hollywood set director.

In addition to her growing collection of trophies, Yani Tseng (曾雅妮) has displayed two dozen Starbucks mugs from all over the world, an ad for a local pizzeria and a plush Angry Bird scowling from a loving cup. Only the certificate noting Tseng’s completion of a Level 4 English class hints at her deepest roots.

Tseng, 22, a native of Taiwan, is the world’s No. 1 female golfer. She is the youngest golfer, man or woman, to win five major titles. For her next act, Tseng wants to win over the US. She may find it easier to become the first woman to win a calendar Grand Slam.

With the exception of superstars like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, golfers are faint stars in the US firmament, outshined by football, basketball and baseball players. For a female golfer to make the rounds of the morning talk shows, all the planets have to align. It happened in September, but the player was not Tseng, who had won eight tournaments by then. It was Lexi Thompson, a tall, blond US teenager fresh off her first professional victory.

Over the past decade, the LPGA has had a proliferation of South Koreans in its ranks following the success of Se Ri-pak. Since 2008, its overall schedule has been downsized, but the number of tournaments in Asia has been rising. Among the official events added this year was one in Taiwan, which Tseng fittingly won for the 10th of her 11 worldwide titles this year.

The crowds that met Tseng at the airport when she arrived for the event were so large, she required the same security detail that accompanied the pop star Lady Gaga when she performed in Taipei. It was the same story on the course, where Tseng’s large following led her 92-year-old grandmother to ask if she had paid to have all the people brought in.

“It was so much fun,” Tseng said. “Now I know what Tiger feels.”

After the success of the event, the Taiwanese organizers paid handsome appearance fees to lure eight of the top 10 female golfers to New Taipei City (新北市) this week for what amounts to a curtain call: an 18-hole Grand Slam skins game, followed by the Taiwan Ladies Professional Golf Association Invitational.

Tseng’s fame in Asia dwarfs her profile in the US, which raises the question: In an increasingly globalized world, does it matter if the brightest stars shine in the East or West?

Robert Thompson, a professor of mass media and popular culture at Syracuse University in New York, said: “We have this prejudice that it does not matter if you’re huge anywhere else, that the only real sign of success is if you’re famous in the United States.”

“If I were advising her, I don’t think I’d put being famous in the United States at the top of my list. When you’re really famous in Asia, there are billions who know you, compared to millions in the US. I’d tell her to keep playing the way she’s playing and if she doesn’t make the highlights on ESPN, oh well,” he added.

At a tournament in China last month, Tseng was asked about playing against men, as her mentor, Annika Sorenstam, once did in a PGA Tour event. She said if the opportunity presented itself, she would like to try it. Within days, a tournament director in Puerto Rico offered her a sponsor exemption to his event next year.

“It was really nice to have people who really pay attention to you,” said Tseng, who declined the invitation. “I feel like every word I say now, I can really inspire people.”

Tseng may be in the vanguard of a new world order, but as long as Madison Avenue is in New York, she will polish her English, wiggle into form-fitting outfits and do her best to woo US advertisers.

“We know Yani has a couple of strikes against her in America,” Tseng’s adviser, Ernie Huang, said.

“One, she is a woman, and second, she is Asian. It does not diminish her desire to be a sports icon and in order to accomplish that, she still needs to embrace Western society,” he said.

“We have been pretty patient. We don’t care how long it takes. We’re like that old Smith Barney commercial. We want to make money the old-fashioned way. We want to earn it,” he added.

Tseng is often compared to Sorenstam, a former No. 1 player with a powerful game. Temperamentally, she is more like Shaquille O’Neal, the playful former NBA superstar.

Like O’Neal, who invited reporters to his retirement party, Tseng opened her Orlando home to members of the golf media before the first round of the season-ending CME Group Titleholders last month at Grand Cypress Resort. Her caddie, Jason Hamilton, grilled steaks, and his fiancee, Katy Mullin, made appetizers.

Dressed like Harry Potter in a black cape and black-rimmed glasses, Tseng delivered a welcome speech to her guests.

At 18, Tseng moved with her mother to the Southern California desert town of Beaumont to work on her game. She had announced herself three years earlier with a victory over Michelle Wie in the final of the 2004 US Women’s Amateur Public Links.

Tseng turned pro in 2007 and earned her LPGA playing privileges for the 2008 season, when she won her first major, at the LPGA Championship, and rookie of the year honors. She has won 23 worldwide titles in her career, 12 on the LPGA tour.

On the course, Tseng is a beguiling mix of fire and nice; she walks with her shoulders forward, but her smile takes the edge off her aggression.

She dresses in slacks or shorts and would sooner hit out of a poison ivy patch than wear a skirt to play.

Tseng is the Arnold Palmer of women’s golf, increasing the sport’s visibility with her genial nature and go-for-broke playing style.

“The young golfers are increasing because of Yani,” Julie Wang (王麗珠), a Taiwanese journalist, said in an e-mail.

Tseng drew more fans at the LPGA Taiwan Championship in October than Woods did at the 1999 Johnnie Walker Classic in Taiwan.

“We had 60,000 people in four days come, 20,000 fans in the final round,” Wang said. “We never had a sight like that before.”

Wang, who has written a biography of Tseng, said Tseng last year was voted the fourth most influential figure in Taiwan in a TV poll.

Taiwan has had other star athletes: Pitcher Wang Chien-ming (王建民), who played last season for the Washington Nationals; Chi Cheng (紀政), the 1968 Olympic bronze medalist in the women’s 80m hurdles; and the golfer TC Chen (陳志忠), who led after the first three rounds of the 1985 US Open before finishing second.

“Those stars are old now, we need new blood,” Wang said.