Quest for pride carries a former champion amid a twilight zone

Almost every champion comes to a point when the world looks away from them. They used to be somebody. They had a private army. They'd flash a club in the sun and a platoon of cameras would fire.

Now, nothing for Tseng Ya-ni.

Now not a single photographer follows her. Now those QUIET signs which volunteers carry are redundant, for there's barely anyone to ask to be quiet. People gravitate towards greatness and edge away from failure. Now her army is 12 people and it includes a teacher, an accountant, a headhunter and an IT trainer, but what she needs is a miracle worker.

There is no lonelier place in sport than last place - which is where Ya-ni started yesterday - especially if you once resided in first place. Tiger Woods was undone by controversy, a brittle body and age, but she's 27 and fit and how did this happen? How do you go from five Majors, 109 weeks at No. 1 and 68 times in the top 10 to not finishing better than 60th in four events this year, not once breaking 70 in 14 rounds and losing six balls in the water at Sentosa in four days?

"S**t happens," says Ya-ni to The Straits Times about her day. It is a sufficient answer.

It's been a hot, lousy, forgettable day on which she has a 74. It's been a day when she makes a birdie, follows it with a bogey and follows that with a double bogey. It's been a day of shots that go way right over cart paths and way left over cart paths and one even lands on a cart path and she stands and watches flabbergasted as the ball bounces out of bounds.

It's been a day of awful images, none worse than at her third hole where she stands alone, disconsolate, in the shade of a looming scoreboard. She, 11-over then, is looking down but above her on the leader board the eventual winner Jang Ha Na is at -13. Ya-ni is 24 shots behind then (she will finish 31 shots behind Jang) and it tells you far she has wandered from greatness.

And still, because she's Ya-ni, because there's always been a luminous grace to her, she finds a way to smile. "It's very tough," she says later and then carries on, for her sentences never have any punctuation. "It's hard to hang in there but I play the best I can."

All day it's as if she's been playing some other tournament. The HSBC Women's Champions is going on somewhere else, across the fairways, past the water hazard, over the trees, from where distant roars sometimes arrive. They're playing for a trophy, she's playing to keep her sanity, find her form and retain her pride. "Golf," she later sighs, "is such a hard game."

Sport is evidently a place reserved for the loco and the nutty. Consider this: Ya-ni hit 32.1 per cent of fairways all week (Jang hit 83.9 per cent), her game is entirely disobedient, and yet we expect her to have faith amid this confusion and to find confidence amid this debris. It is why the comeback - the defying of logic - is one of sports' most beloved feats.

People believe in Ya-ni. The man from Japan who likes her big drives and won't give his name has travelled from Tokyo to see her because he believes. So does Geraldine Ng, who whispers, "I don't know what's wrong with her swing" but walks 18 holes in dutiful support.

Liz Chiu and Chia Chen-liang from Taiwan will tell you Ya-ni is "very kind to everyone". Wong Hong Sze, a local, insists "she will be back". A quiet Taiwanese lady just lets her T-shirt speak: "Yani. Keep Smile."

Maybe they believe in Ya-ni because of what they see now and then, small sparks of a genius trying to ignite again. At the 11th hole her drive lurches into the woods and a cluster of trees blocks her second shot, yet by marrying invention and inspiration she finds a gap, her ball kisses some leaves, lands on the green and is putted in for birdie.

Only champions see daylight when none seems to exist and perhaps Ya-ni holds onto this notion that there is a way through and that she is too good to be so bad for too long. "It's hard to do but I have to stay positive. It's all I can do."

She has finished second-last at 12-over, she has earned only US$3,831, she is despondent and yet she poses for wefies after her round and signs hats with a smile. Only the exceptional can wear dignity in defeat.

Maybe 40 minutes later, Jang will be on the 18th green, filmed by more than seven cameras, regaled by drummers, dancing for the world. She is today's sensation. Yesterday's hero has slipped away, leaving behind no footprint on this tournament but letting one last, proud sentence hang in the sweaty air of the afternoon.

"I still believe I can win."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2016, with the headline 'Quest for pride carries a former champion amid a twilight zone'. Print Edition | Subscribe