Yani Tseng: World No. 1 and Still Playing With Appreciation

Before my exclusive interview with her (below), Yani Tseng began with her scheduled media session at the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup and here are some interesting excerpts from that:

MODERATOR: You’ve held the Number 1 spot in the Rolex Rankings now for 109 weeks.  Recently it slipped to 62 points.  Is that in the back of your mind at all coming into this week?

Oh, I wasn’t paying attention about that because I didn’t know how they do the rankings.  I just know every day I’m getting closer and closer — the people are getting closer and closer to me.  I didn’t know how they do that.  I know it was very close and everybody’s asking that question.

But now, I mean, this year I don’t want to focus on World No. 1, I just want to focus on myself and focus on everything outside of golf, inside of golf.  I just want to have fun and enjoy as [much] as I can because I know last year I paid too much attention to World No. 1.  I tried to stay on top and I feel like I tried to stay on top and tried to play well instead of getting there, instead of like just have fun and keep doing what I’m used to doing and I feel like I lost some child like, I just want to play as a child, and I feel like I lost that enjoyment for playing golf last year. 

So this year, World No. 1 still means a lot for me, but I just don’t want to really focus on that.  If I lose, it’s okay, I just try to get it back.  I’m not worried about too much.  It’s very hard to always be on top, and I think now the LPGA is getting tougher and tougher.  You need to play well every week to stay on top.  It’s not as easy as people thought.  So I think I’m very appreciate about everything, what I have now.  I feel I’m a very lucky person.  So many people that are helping me to be World No. 1 and now I feel very thankful, very appreciate, and I know if I enjoy more and then the result will be there for me.  So I just try to smile more, because last year I know I didn’t smile as much.  I tried, but it’s just so hard to smile.  So this year I want to smile more and enjoy more and then I don’t worry about those rankings.  I know it will be good to stay on top, but World No. 1 is always my dream, my goal, but I’m still here.  I’m very appreciative.

Did you start playing badly and then stop playing like a child, or did you stop playing like a child and then started playing badly?  Which came first?

No, I started playing badly, yes, of course, because I think when you play like a child, you don’t playing bad.  On the Tour it’s lots of pressure, it’s very competitive.  You want to have fun out there, you don’t want to think about results too much.  But you want to try to find the fine line because it’s very easy to be too relaxed, it’s very easy to have too much pressure.  You just want to find the balance and try to find a new way to play your best golf.

You started out last year by winning three of the first five tournaments.  Did that increase the pressure on you and make you feel that there was more pressure?

I feel that way — first time I feel more pressure actually is after I didn’t finish Top 10.  I think I was like eight straight Top 10s last year, and after I didn’t finish Top 10 and people started asking me what’s wrong with Yani.  I think that is time I feel really pressure.  And I just feel like do I play golf for myself or what do I do, because I feel like at that time I wasn’t playing for myself.  I try to stay World No. 1, but I just feel like it’s not me and I start working crazy, working so hard and that’s just not me.  I don’t go shopping, I don’t watch movies, I don’t do anything fun.  Every day I’m thinking golf.  That’s just not me.  I like to have fun, I like to smile on the course and hang out with friends.  But after that, I don’t have any fun anymore.  I just focus too much on golf and forget about too much things.  But after that, I (inaudible) for a long time, though.  But it’s good that I start very fresh this year.

So have you changed your shot strategy going from maybe a grip‑it‑and‑rip‑it to something maybe a little bit more, instead of going with a driver every time, you use a 3‑wood occasionally?

No, I feel like grip‑it‑and‑rip‑it.  I think golf, that’s what is fun.  You can choose what you want to play, you can play aggressive, you can play smart.  I still like hitting drivers.  I still like to go for it on the second shot on a par 5.  I think it’s fun to watch and I think it’s fun to play, too, because why you have a shot and you want to lay up.  It just doesn’t make sense for me.  That’s what I love to do.  I think you learn from the mistakes and you learn as you go.  So I just try to improve on my swing a little bit, try to be more consistently, and the strategy stay the same.  And my caddie, Paul, helps me a lot and we try to play smart, and if we can go for it, we go for it.

If things go poorly this year for a stretch, how do you maintain that kind of child‑like enthusiasm and not fall into what happened last year?

Actually when you look back, it’s not that bad.  People talk about it bad, but I mean, when I look back, I still have three wins, 12, 13 Top 10s.  I think people are putting so much expectation on myself and I’m putting a lot of expectation on myself, too.  When I look back I was very appreciative.  I would say probably my best year I haven’t done because I learned so much that I couldn’t learn out of a golf course or on the golf course.  I learn some more about life, not just about golf, and I feel I’ve been getting more mature.  And then helping more people, it makes me very happy, too.  I play on the golf course, play the game what I like, when I was kid, so I just feel very appreciate now.  Like I say, I’m very lucky and I don’t ask for any more.  I mean, I just want to play good golf, I want to play good golf.  Doesn’t matter what position, either I 100 or World No. 1, but I just want to play good golf.  I just want to enjoy.

This is the third year in a row that I’ve had an opportunity to interview Yani at the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup. In fact, as I re-introduced myself, she said, “Yeah, I know you.” I took it as a complement.

2012 began as a banner year for Yani. She had 3 wins in the first five tournaments: the Honda LPGA Thailand, the Founders Cup here in Phoenix and the Kia Classic at La Costa in Carlsbad, California, the following week.

After she finished her interview the LPGA media staff brought her over to me…

As you know, I’m more interested in golf mastery, what you call the mental side of the game.

Hmm. Hmm.

And I found your comments today very interesting. But I also found what went on for you last year very interesting. It was very interesting to me to find out how you went from being this super player to that lull — you started about in June — to going T59 and missing cuts and stuff like that.

How did that happen? I read someplace that it was confidence, you lost your confidence?

Yeah, I lost lots of confidence and I put lots of pressure on myself. I almost didn’t allow myself to have a miss [shot].

Right. Because you’re Yani.

Because I think the people look at me as the World No. 1 and am I going to play like World No. 1? Instead of before I was World No. 1, I just wanted to be World No.1. That’s totally different. And it’s very hard when you have no one in front of you. And you try to find a goal, you try to find why you can’t achieve.

There’s nobody to chase.

Yeah. It’s really hard. And — only you have long term goal, it’s very hard to find the short term goal. So that’s really hard for me.

So what did you find as a short term goal? Towards the end of the year you started climbing back out and you’ve had a really nice start to this year.

Yeah, I found another goal, but it wasn’t anything golf. I just want to enjoy more and I want to improve my swing and I don’t really care what position [in the world rankings] I am. I just want to play good golf. I just want to enjoy. Like I say, if I lose, I lose. It’s okay, I’ll just get it back. I mean, I’m only twenty-four years old. How many years of good golf do I still have?

I mean you lose ninety-one times, like Tiger. Couple of years…

Same thing [as you].

Yeah, I know he was on top for a long time, but one day he’s going to come back.

Oh, he’s on his way [laughs].

Yeah, it’s just about time. But you’re always going to come back and that’s how you can go up. That’s how we learn too, you know we struggling and we get better. And we struggling and we get better.

Right. Well, I read a transcript from an NPR program that said that part of the Asian training of children is to recognize the value in struggle.

Yeah, that’s why everybody works so hard.

Yeah. That being in the struggle is part of getting better.

Yeah, of course. That’s why we always say “learn as you go,” and you learn from the mistake, you learn from the good things, you learn from the bad things too. So if you’re never struggling, how do you know, how does that feel when you do your best.

Exactly.

Because when I play my best — last year I didn’t play as well — how do you know to appreciate when you’re playing good golf. You know it’s not easy.

So aside from the playing, what was the best lesson you learned about yourself last year?

Uh, to be more appreciative? I think it’s, uh…

Every time I’ve talked to you, you talk about how appreciative you are.

Yeah, because I feel like I’m very lucky already compared to lots of people and I just feel, uh, so many people are helping me to be a World No. 1 and I don’t — I just feel really appreciative. I mean, it’s easy to say, but sometimes what you really feel that is not that easy. It’s not that easy because I always say I want to remind myself that I want to be that way. But last year —

Hard to be appreciative [laughs].

Yeah, after those days and I feel like this is the way you should feel if you’re really appreciative, because when you’re appreciative more you’ll be much more happier with what you have.

Mmm. Mmm. Living life in gratitude.

Yeah.

Mmm. Very good. So from a playing point of view, was there anything going on in your swing aside from your injuries?

Oh, no, I just try to improve my swing. My body feels good right now. Sometimes I’m shorter. But it wasn’t that big an issue, but I have been working really hard with my swing coach, Gary [Gilchrist] and I think it feels very good. I feel very comfortable with my swing now. I feel pretty good about this week.

Who could imagine that anything would ever go wrong with your swing? [Laughs]

I know [laughs]. That’s what I’m thinking too! How can this go wrong when it’s not that bad? It’s very funny. That’s how you know that mental can affect that many…

Well, look at what’s happened to Rory [McIlroy]. Boy, he can’t figure out how to take it away right now.

Yeah. But when you have a mental problem, it’s very hard. You can have a tough “mental” — you can have a tough mental even if you have a poor swing. You’re still going to hit it straight. But, you know, with the best swing you have, if you don’t have a good mental you’re still going to hit it right or left.

In terms of the attitude and the way you approach the game.

Yeah, yeah.

I just look at how great you’ve been over these years and I’m reminded of your — I did the post on you here last year and I have this picture of you at the top of the page with this big smile on your face. And the post was about smiling all the time, which you said you were going to do.

Hmm hmm. Yeah.

And I wrote here’s a picture of Yani Tseng smiling, on the 10th hole. She was down by three at the time and she went on to win. Do you remember that?

Yeah.

And you smiled your way to victory.

Yeah. That’s how you should do it. I smile all the time because it doesn’t matter what things you have, if you smile, you face [up] to it and things are going to go right.

But it’s hard to remember to do that when things are going bad.

Yeah, it is. Last year I figured out that I was very hard to smile.

So, you know this. So how long does it take from the time you have a bad round and you’re not smiling — how long does it take you to get that smile back on your face again? The next day? The next week?

It could be the next day. It could be the next hole.

Oh, cool.

You know, it could be the next shot. You never know. It’s just about the attitude that you have and if you can really play one shot at a time, you try to smile every shot, doesn’t matter was it good, was it bad, you smile to it.

So that’s your secret?

Yeah! [laughs] I think so. I don’t have any secrets.

No other secrets? [Laughs]

Nooo.

The rest of us are dying to know. Alright, thank you very much.

No problem.

I really appreciate your taking the time.

Okay.

She still sounds like World No.1 to me and she looks extremely fit and rested.

But so did World No. 3 Stacy Lewis in her media session. And she had a gleam in her eye and a hint of a smile on her face as she considered how close the race at the top is getting.

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