Taiwan seldom raises an international sports hero and even less frequently hosts an internationally recognized sporting event – not that it hasn't tried.
Pitcher Wang Chien-ming was scoring his way up the Major League Baseball charts until 2008, when he sat out much of two seasons with injuries. Ultra-marathon runner Kevin Lin of Taipei made a mark crossing the Sahara Desert in 2007 but failed to grab a global following.
Taiwan's archrival China, with more economic clout and diplomatic support, sees Taiwan as part of its turf and urges world sports associations, as well as other international bodies, to ignore the place. Taiwanese players abroad often typically play under a “Chinese Taipei” flag to imply a bond to China.
But, this Sunday something changed for Taiwan and brought it a step closer to international sports legitimacy: It got both its superstar and its event as Yani Tseng won the first-ever Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tournament on her home turf. She came in first in a field of 90 golfers at 16 under par, five strokes ahead of runners-up Azahara Munoz of Spain and Amy Yang of South Korea.
“This is the first time I’ve had this kind of feeling and I’ve got no way to compare it. The meaning is very special, to win in front of so many of Taiwanese fans and media,” said Ms. Tseng, 22, alluding to the more than 40,000 fans who shadowed her down the fairways, so enthusiastic in some cases that their camera clicks threw off her swing.The LPGA chose Taiwan this year in part because Tseng had consistently topped the scorecards in recent play, said association spokesman Mike Scanlan. Tseng is ranked the world No. 1 female golfer and has been named player of the year for 2010 and 2011. Her win in Taiwan was the seventh LPGA victory this season. China, for its part, called off an LPGA event this year in its southern city Guangzhou.
The diplomatic impact wasn’t lost on the winner, who was once known for turning down sponsors from China. She announced on Sunday that she would donate a third of her $300,000 tournament prize to a Taiwanese golf association for training. “To leave the top prize in Taiwan won’t disappoint me or the people,” she said. “It’s public diplomacy. It’s letting Taiwan step into the world, which is not easy to do.”
Tseng began playing golf at the age of 5 with her father, an amateur golfer, sometimes for five hours a day after school. Golf experts say she has no professional weaknesses. She speaks modestly about her wins, saying that she aims to improve her normally unbeatable scores and keep studying English to boost her public image.
She already appears to be inspiring others, as 10 other Taiwanese golfers played in the Oct. 20-23 tournament. “She’s a very good role model,” said Taiwanese player Tsai Pei-ying after trailing Tseng in round one. “There are a lot of points of hers that I will do my best to study.” Fellow Taiwanese contestant Candie Kung said Tseng had fulfilled her own past goal of bringing LPGA to Taiwan.
The LPGA forecasts more events in Taiwan, following years of effort to organize the one just past. But whether Tseng’s magnetism has staying power depends on how long she tops the leader-board and what sponsors think. Sponsors traditionally favor the men’s PGA and Western athletes, experts believe.
“A stronger Pacific Rim presence would certainly have an appeal to sponsors looking to do business in the region and sponsors in the region looking to expand their local footprint,” says Larry DeGaris, associate professor of marketing with the University of Indianapolis. “Personally, I think it’s an exciting time for the tour, with some renewed energy and a lot of possibilities – maybe too many.”