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Changed the Game: Yani Tseng quickly found success, but took years to fully realize her love for golf

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"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

Yani Tseng has accomplished more at 32 than some athletes do in a lifetime. She was just 22 years old when she became the youngest golfer of any gender to win five major championships, something she accomplished in the midst of her 109-week reign at the top of the LPGA rankings.

Tseng's story is more than just success and inspiration. Her rise was closely followed by a stunning fall that not even she can fully explain. After 109 weeks as the No. 1 female golfer in the world, Tseng stopped winning. Worse, she stopped contending. She hasn't won a tournament since March 25, 2012.

Now, 10 years after her rise to the top of the LPGA, Tseng is back — but this time, she's got a new attitude, a healthy mindset, and she's doing it all for herself.

“It hurts a lot when you try to come back and you keep falling down, falling down, keep falling, falling, falling,” Tseng told the Golf Channel in 2020. “But, I’m still here.”

Tseng's rise

Tseng turned pro in 2007 after spending two years as Taiwan's top-ranked amateur player. She won the LPGA Championship, her first major, in 2008 when she was just 19. She was the first Taiwanese woman to win an LPGA major tournament, the youngest to ever win the LPGA Championship and the second-youngest to win any LPGA major.

That was just the beginning. After a successful 2009, Tseng won two more majors in 2010: the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the Women's British Open. She was just 21, making her the youngest female golfer to win three major championships in the modern era.

Tseng started 2011 with a bang, landing at the No. 1 spot in the LPGA rankings on Feb. 14. She wouldn't give up that spot until March 18, 2013, a span of 109 weeks, the second-longest any LPGA player has spent at No. 1. And despite already making so much history as a golfer, 2011 saw her make even more. She won two more majors, bringing her career total to five. She was just 22, which made her the youngest golfer in history, male or female, to win five major championships. Tseng had bested Tiger Woods, who didn't win his fifth major until he was 25.

Tseng was at the top of her game and at the top of women's golf. She signed major sponsorships back home. She amassed $2 million in prize money faster than any LPGA player ever. She was a star in Taiwan. She had talent, focus and drive. There was no reason her success shouldn't continue. When she won the Kia Classic on March 25, 2012, she had no idea that it would be her last win to date.

Yani Tseng became the youngest golfer regardless of gender to win five majors in a career. Then, she stopped winning.  (Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Yani Tseng became the youngest golfer regardless of gender to win five majors in a career. Then, she stopped winning. (Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Tseng's fall

There was a tremendous amount of pressure on Tseng. She was a sensation in Taiwan, where something as simple as going out for lunch could be news. It was overwhelming, and the media scrutiny didn't help. Having already accomplished so much, the media questioned her hard when she began to slip, asking after she finished in the top 10 (instead of winning), "Are you in a slump?"

But Tseng also put an enormous amount of pressure on herself. After she hit No. 1, she started practicing 12 hours a day.

“I was looking at [what] I imagined world No. 1 should be, someone much better than I am," she said, via the AP.

It wasn't sustainable. After capturing victories in three of the first five LPGA events of 2012, things started to change. By August, when she was still ranked No. 1, she had missed the cut in three of her last four events.

“I was playing really good during practice rounds,” Tseng told Golfweek, “but once it got to the tournament like my mind, I was losing control of my mind, my swing, my body. I don’t trust as much.”

Tseng changed caddies, and had brief flashes of success in 2013. She started the season in February with second- and third-place finishes, but didn't land in the top 10 again until August. In the 15 interim tournaments, she missed the cut five times. She turned in a handful of top-five finishes in 2014 and 2015, but that was the last time. In 2017 and 2018, she missed the cut in at least half of the tournaments she played.

Though Tseng kept trying, kept working to rediscover the form she had in 2010 and 2011, she couldn't make it happen.

“I don’t know how many times I cried, how many times I cried on the course,” she said to Golfweek.

Getting to know herself

Tseng played in just five tournaments in 2019, suffering a back injury that caused her to miss 23 months on the Tour. But that injury, and the break she needed to take, helped her in ways she didn't anticipate.

Tseng went home to Taiwan and decided to enroll in a 10-day meditation retreat. There was no talking, no phones or computers, no eye contact, and that's where she finally had no choice but to look inside herself and face her true feelings and emotions. She spent the first five days crying, releasing years of tension, pressure, pain and expectations.

"I finally let it go,” she said. “I don’t want to live my life so hard. I’ve been so hard on myself.”

Her relationships with friends and family got better after she left, and she discovered that she still loved the game of golf. She had the desire to return to the fairways and greens, and once she was healthy, she'd do it differently.

“I was playing golf for someone else,” she said. “I was trying to be a person that people wanted me to be instead of, this is just me.”

Tseng's story is still being written, but now she's the one writing it. She's returning to golf for herself, because she knows she still has so much to give.

“Sometimes I’m surprised I still have this passion,” Tseng said with a chuckle to the Golf Channel. “But every day I wake up, I want to go practice. For me, I just want to feel like I can play happy golf again. I’m proud of myself. I still have a lot of passion to give.”

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