Kraft Nabisco Championship 2013: Yani Tseng can make history with win at Mission Hills

David Cannon

Yani Tseng may no longer own the top ranking in women’s golf, but after an embarrassing faux pas at the Kia Classic two weeks ago, the former world No. 1 will be the center of attention when the Kraft Nabisco kicks off the major championship season on Thursday.

Tseng, who lost her perch atop the Rolex Rankings to Stacy Lewis at last month’s LPGA Founders Cup, overslept and missed her Kia Classic pro-am tee time. Per LPGA rules, Tseng’s lapse meant she was ineligible for the actual tournament, in which she was defending champion. She apologized but soon took to Facebook to express her dismay over a negative report out of Taiwan that, in the wake of her inability to win since last year’s Kia Classic, blamed her advisory team for letting her take her eye off the ball.

Tseng often complained about the pressures of being No. 1 and though she no longer holds that title, she’s likely to hear a lot this week about her chance to make history with a first-place finish at Mission Hills Country Club. Should she break her 12-month winless drought, Tseng would overtake Tiger Woods as the youngest six-major titleholder. Woods was 26-plus when he won the 2001 Masters.

Can Tseng rise above the internal and external distractions and grab her 27th worldwide win? Coach Gary Gilchrist offered a tentative vote of confidence. The key, he said, was patience.

"You’re going to make a couple of mistakes, but don’t let them bother her," he told SBNation by phone on Saturday. "If you’re going to win, it’s going to always be about mental toughness -- if you can stay patient, stay focused, and just allow the game to come to you; don’t force it."

Gilchrist, who coached D.W. Points to his second PGA Tour win at last week’s Shell Houston Open, advised Tseng to forget about the top ranking and concentrate on the immediate task.

"The more you dwell on that, the worse it can become," he said. "First of all, we focused on worrying about not losing it; now we don’t need to worry about focusing on trying to get it back.

"Focus on getting the job done is the key that I would try to recommend to her."

Despite her disappointment over the Kia Classic situation, Gilchrist said Tseng had to put that in the rear-view mirror and move on.

"It’s about getting over it and now refocusing on the next week," said Gilchrist, who noted that he and his student were working on "every area of her game," including the plane of her backswing and how she rolled the ball.

"Make sure that she’s happy with her putting, that she’s confident in her putting," Gilchrist said about Tseng, who's ranked 13th on tour this season with the flat stick. "That’s the big thing."

Of course, it’s not all about Yani. A few LPGA golfers may have a say in who gets to jump into Poppie’s Pond on Sunday night.

Lewis will be playing her first major as the top dog. She won the event -- her first tour W -- in 2011 by outplaying Tseng in the final round. The 28-year-old has banked six additional tour wins since then, including two this season, and enters the week ranked first in 11 statistical categories, including scoring average, money won, and Player of the Year and U.S. Solheim Cup team points.

Lydia Ko, the 15-year-old amateur wunderkind qualified for the field with her historic 2012 Canadian Women’s Open victory. The triumph made Ko the youngest winner in tour history and a Kiwi by way of South Korea has already come out on top at this year’s New Zealand Women’s Open.

One of the most riveting characters in this week’s drama will be I.K. Kim, who would like nothing more than to erase the devastating memory of her missed one-foot putt for the win -- what Golf Channel’s Tim Rosaforte called at the time unofficially "the shortest putt ever missed in a major championship" -- at last year’s championship. So striking is Kim’s shot at redemption that many fans may not even remember that Sun Young Yoo out-dueled her in a playoff for the 2012 trophy.

"I very much would like to see [Kim] redeem herself, whether it’s at the Kraft Nabisco, or wherever," LPGA Hall of Famer Judy Rankin said during a conference call last week. "She’s just a wonderful player. I thought she handled it as well and as beautifully as any player ever, but I do believe -- she may say this isn’t true -- but I do believe it left a scar. She’s got to do some good things to have that heal."

Kim enters the tournament on the heels of more putting woes. She lost the Kia Classic in another playoff, this time to Beatriz Recari, after three-putting the 72nd hole in regulation and the first hole of overtime.

"She’s a terrific player, tee to green," Rankin said. "She has not been, throughout her career, a real confident putter. She had this little failing where she would shoot a great round of golf, she would shoot 65, 66 somewhere, but it seemed like almost every day there was one little short miss that you would not expect.

"I sure did not expect it that day," Rankin recalled. "I absolutely did not."

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