Wearing a Mona Lisa smile, white pants, black sweater and a cap bearing the logo of Oak Valley Golf Club, Yani Tseng showed all the poise of an accomplished LPGA contender in the hunt for Rookie of the Year honors.
"I felt very comfortable out there," said Tseng, 19, of her first two LPGA events during a break from a practice session at Oak Valley in Beaumont.
The Taiwanese native considers Oak Valley her United States home course, and its general manager, Kai Chang, has served as a mentor of sorts to Tseng during her years competing in U.S. Asian Junior Golf Association and USGA events.
"She was considered the best women's amateur in Asia," Chang said. "She is seen as an icon. People follow what she does automatically."
Up until now, Tseng is best known for beating Michelle Wie in the final of the 2004 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship and defeating Morgan Pressel at the 2005 North & South Women's Amateur. But those amateur triumphs and her six-year record playing USGA events have been eclipsed since she turned professional.
Last year, Tseng breezed through the final LPGA Qualifying Tournament in Daytona Beach, Fla., where she finished sixth. She topped that accomplishment early this year by winning the Taiwan LPGA & Royal Open by 17 strokes.
"For the first time I feel like Tiger," Tseng said, referring to one of her golf inspirations who routinely leaves the field in the dust.
Tseng already has won professional events in India and Canada and had the lead in the final round of January's TaiFong Open in Taiwan but let the tournament slip away.
"My mental state was not strong. I couldn't believe it," she wrote in her blog for lpga.com. "I couldn't feel anything in the last round. My mind was all blank. But what an experience. I will never let that happen again when I play in the LPGA."
Barely a quarter into 2008, Tseng could be on target toward her goal of being the LPGA's Rookie of the Year. Her performances include a tie for eighth at the SBS Open and a tie for 25th at the Fields Open.
Much of her early success can be attributed to the solid foundation of training opportunities and tournament experience arranged by Chang and San Diego resident Ernie Huang, who has been Tseng's host and guide since 2001.
"Yani is an extremely competitive person," said Huang, who as a board member of the Southland-based Chinese-American Golf Foundation, is a mentor and guide to several international players. "You look into her eyes and you know she really wants to win."
Tseng's parents introduced her to golf when she was 6 years old. The competitive bug bit before she turned 9.
"I remember starting to play in some competitive events, and at one I cried because I couldn't get out of a bunker," Tseng said with a wry smile.
Those early tears of frustration could become tears of joy when she hoists her first trophy on the LPGA Tour.