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LPGA phenom Yani Tseng leans on golf legend

Yani Tseng is the top-ranked women’s golfer in the world.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Yani Tseng is the top-ranked women’s golfer in the world.

The stars are neighbors, their houses straddling the 16th fairway at Orlando’s Lake Nona Golf & Country Club, a plush 461-yard par 4 that hugs the Red Lake shores. They knock on each other’s doors to say hello. They eat cheese and drink wine together over conversations about the sport they have defined and dominated.

Yani Tseng is the world’s top-ranked female golfer, a title once held for 60 weeks by Annika Sorenstam, Tseng’s idol, her friend, and the person from whom she bought that Lake Nona house back in 2009. Instead of a torch, the LPGA Tour’s old guard bequeathed her 5,400-square-foot residence three years ago.

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But the mentorship was born far before realty became reality. Before Tseng won seven events in 2011, before she became the youngest golfer ever, regardless of gender, to win five major championships, she was shopping for a small condo in Florida.

At the 2008 Lexus Cup Grand Finale, a goodbye tribute was held for Sorenstam, in her final year on the Tour. When Mike McGee, then Sorenstam’s fiancée and managing director for her business brand, stood behind Sorenstam at a sponsor’s table, he heard someone crying. Turning around, he saw Tseng.

“She was literally almost sobbing, just because she’s going to miss Annika stepping away,” McGee said. “I was totally taken aback by it. I was shocked. But my heart went out to her. What a sweet kid, to show this emotion. I knew how Annika’s affected players and young players. She’s changed the women’s game as we know it today, but to see the next generation show it so vividly and openly in front of many, many peers, I was very impressed by that.”

At breakfast the next morning, Tseng mentioned that she was house-hunting in the Orlando area. McGee invited her to view the light-yellow property that Sorenstam was shopping around. Tseng instinctually declined, sensing that Sorentam’s house was too big for a young 20-something.

But her family convinced her to take a look. The first time she stepped into the house, Tseng loved it, though she wondered how she ever would fill the massive trophy case that Sorenstam had stuffed with glass and sterling silver.

“It felt like that was my home,” Tseng said. “My mom was a little worried that it would put too much pressure on me to buy this house, but I told myself I have confidence. In the future, everything will pay off. I work hard, and I knew this was the house I want. It gave me the motivation to play better.”

Once they wrapped up the deal, Sorenstam had one request. If you have any questions, she said, just come over. Now, any time Tseng wonders about family, fans, the media, or how to stay the world’s No. 1, she buys wine, or the occasional present for Sorenstam’s children, and knocks.

“It helps to have peace off the course, to not always be working out and practicing, to really find joy in life, because that’s what Annika’s done,” McGee said. “Coming from someone who’s been at the top to someone who is at the top, it’s got to be encouraging to hear that rather than, ‘What are you doing talking to me? You should be out hitting more balls.’

“It’s pretty cool, hearing Yani ask questions to one of the few people on this planet who can actually relate. For someone who’s won 11 times in a year, who can you talk to other than someone who’s won more?”

From the best, to the best

When they first played together during a practice round, a soft-spoken and nervous Tseng told Sorenstam that she yearned to develop into a Hall of Famer, just like the golfer she grew up watching on television.

“She told me, I have lots of talent, just need to keep doing the things I’m doing,” Tseng said. “Keep working hard, one day I’ll be there. I always remember that.”

Tseng quickly put Sorenstam’s words into practice. The following season, she won LPGA Tour Rookie of the Year honors. Her first Tour victory came at the LPGA Championship, which made her the youngest player in history to win the event, and the first Taiwanese golfer to win an LPGA major. She overtook Jiyai Shin atop the Rolex Rankings on Valentine’s Day last year.

After capturing the LPGA Championship and the British Open in 2011, Tseng’s play has tapered off lately. She heads into this weekend’s US Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis., on the heels of a 59th-place finish at the LPGA Championship, when she finished 13-over par and media reports of an early retirement began swirling. She missed the cut at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship last weekend too.

But through the minor slump, Tseng has kept Sorenstam’s advice in mind.

“You have to have a goal,” Tseng said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a big goal or a small goal, because that way you have more motivation to achieve it. Now that I’m No. 1, you need to always have something in front of you that you want to go after, so you can get better and better.”

And when Time magazine named Tseng one of the world’s most 100 influential people in 2012, Sorenstam wrote the accompanying blurb, lauding Tseng’s accomplishments on and off the links.

“That was very special,” Tseng said. “I was very emotional when I saw that, because I didn’t know she was going to write that for me. It was one of the best articles I’ve ever seen before, and especially for Annika. That means a lot. It makes me want to do better and help more people around the world.”

It was high praise from history’s winningest and most globally transcendent female golfer, the 162 words of flattery featured front and center on Sorenstam’s personal website.

“Yani’s infectious smile and genuine enthusiasm for golf create an aura that grabs the attention of galleries and living rooms, captivating even casual sports fans,” Sorenstam wrote. “People know they’re witnessing greatness.”

A golfing family

McGee remembers the first time he saw Tseng play in person. Sorenstam was out with a neck injury at the Ginn Open near Kissimmee, Fla. With Tseng quickly ascending the leaderboard, McGee asked Sorenstam about this young golfer.

“Annika said, ‘She’ll be the best player in the world within five years,’ ” McGee said. “And that’s been true.”

These days, Tseng is still shy around Sorenstam, often running out of words around her. But as Tseng’s English skills progress, their conversations lengthen.

“I’ve talked to her a little bit through the year, help her if she needs some help,” Sorenstam said. “Just another person I think who is terrific for the game. I’m looking forward to seeing how she’s going to play at the Open.”

Two years ago, Sorenstam and McGee took Tseng out wakeboarding and tubing.

That fall, at the Mission Hills Star Trophy pro-celebrity tournament in China, Tseng gifted Sorenstam a picture collage from their day on the water, which hangs in the Sorenstam-McGee house to this day. Along with the snapshots, the pictures of the legend and the star smiling together, the frame had a one-word caption that read, “Family.”

Alex Prewitt can be reached at aprewitt@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt.
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