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Top-seeded U.S. golfers struggle in first day of International Crown

The Baltimore Sun

There was a lot of talk going into the LPGA's inaugural International Crown at Caves Valley this week about the momentum the U.S. team had.

After the top-seeded Americans' opening four-ball matches Thursday in Owings Mills, many were wondering where it had gone.

Bottom-seeded Taiwan swept the United States, winning one match in a rout and the other with a clutch, 18th-hole putt.

After Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer, ranked 10th and 12th in the world, respectively, lost to Teresa Lu (No. 44) and Candie Kung (118), 4-2, Yani Tseng and Phoebe Yao (105) shocked top-ranked Stacy Lewis and fifth-ranked Lexi Thompson, 1-up.

The U.S. never led in either match.

Asked what the team learned, Lewis was blunt.

"I guess we learned that the pairings didn't work very well," Lewis said.

Lewis helped the Americans pull even with a short birdie putt on the par-3 17th, but then narrowly missed a 35-footer for birdie on the par-4 18th. Tseng, who helped Taiwan take early control with three birdies on the first six holes, buried a 12-footer to win.

"You have to just keep positive and try to find the good in the day, even though it was disappointing," Kerr said. "We're going to be coming out guns blazing [Friday against Spain]. We have nothing to lose from here on in. We have to fight as hard as we can fight."

The United States, which would be the only team to change its pairings going into the second day of matches, also hope it doesn't run into a player as hot as Tseng was Thursday.

Tseng, who has fallen from No. 1 in the world to No. 53 over the past two years, began her match by pummeling a 300-yard drive to just off the green on the opening par-4 and tapping in for birdie. She followed it up with a 60-foot putt for birdie on the par-4 fourth and a 15-footer for birdie on the par-3 sixth.

"It was very impressive, especially the start. She drained some pretty long putts for birdies, and we knew we had to make birdies to win today," said Thompson, who made a 30-foot birdie putt on the par-4 second to briefly square the match. She made just one more the rest of the day. "Yani put on a show on the front nine."

It was reminiscent of the player who burst from oblivion by winning the 2008 LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace at age 19, won her first five majors faster than any player in golf history and seemed on the verge of qualifying for the LPGA Hall of Fame at the ripe old age of 23.

"I wouldn't say it's the Yani of old, but she just made putts," Lewis said. "She didn't hit it perfect, she hit some bad shots, she hit some good shots. But she just made putts. And in best-ball [play], that's what it comes down to."

Tseng seemed to disagree.

"I felt like the old Yani was back," she said, "I feel really nervous. I feel very pumped up, because I think that playing for my country and my teammates is much better. It's much more motivation than playing for myself. I want to do well for my teammates, I want to do well for my country."

Tseng said after the match that she hadn't been as nervous on the back nine since winning the 2010 Women's British Open at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England. She hasn't won in more than two years and rarely has been in contention, missing 11 cuts the past two years,

"I actually feel like, hopefully, this is my turning point for the rest of my life," she said.

The Americans believed Tseng and her teammates had the advantage of playing loose as the bottom seed.

"They're out there, kind of with nothing to lose," Lewis said. "Definitely, there's probably more pressure with No. 1, but we knew it coming into match play. Anything can happen. And it's such a fickle thing. It always come down to one putt here and there. It's never anything major."

The Americans' lackluster performance helped dilute any first-day fervor among fans. There were the customary chants of "U-S-A" at the first tee, but they became more infrequent as Tseng began to drain putts and neither U.S. team showed it could.

"I think there's going to be a lot more people coming in on the weekend," said Creamer, knowing that how the U.S. plays Friday could dictate how many come to Caves Valley. "We obviously want our fans to be rowdy and to cheer for us. But I understand the dynamics of [how] there's seven other countries as well."

While the United States' play Friday could significantly impact the weekend's atmosphere — especially Sunday, if the Americans don't make it out of pool play and into the singles matches — Taiwan's Lu believes that what happened Thursday already is being felt back in her home.

"I think everyone is really excited about this tournament," Lu said. "And especially today, we have four points, and then they [fans at home] will probably go party tonight."


Thursday's International Crown highlights

Best performance (team): Taiwan. Coming in with no player ranked higher than Teresa Lu at No. 44 and with its best player, former No. 1 Yani Tseng, in a prolonged slump, Taiwan shocked the top-seeded U.S. team in two matches. Lu and Candie Kung won, 4 and 3, over Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer. Tseng and Phoebe Yao beat Stacy Lewis and Lexi Thompson, 1-up, when Tseng made her fourth birdie, a 13-footer on the 18th hole.

Best performance (individual): Minjee Lee, Australia. Though it's hard to top what Tseng did, Lee was even more impressive, given her age and playing partner. The only amateur among the 32 players in the event, Lee won three holes with birdies, including one on the par-4 18th, helping Australia hold into a 1-up victory over second-seeded South Korea. The 18-year-old Lee, who plans to turn pro later this year, outplayed teammate and Hall of Famer Karrie Webb in an upset over Na Yeon Choi and I.K. Kim.

Shot of the day: So Yeon Ryu of South Korea chipped in for eagle on the par-5 12th hole from about 15 yards out, behind the green. The shot gave Ryu and Inbee Park a 3-up advantage over Australia's Katherine Kirk and Lindsey Wright. The only other eagle of the day came from Teresa Lu of Taiwanon No. 4.

Hardest hole: No. 14, a 412-yard par-4, gave golfers fits all day. Nobody recorded a birdie on the hole. Two other holes, par-4 7th and 8th, each surrendered just one birdie.

Best second-day matchup: Japan vs. Australia. Japan leads Pool B with three points, but the Aussies are tied for second with South Korea with two points. This match could go a long way in deciding who plays, and where, on Sunday.

Quote of the day: Before teeing off this morning, the golfers from Taiwan walked out carrying one flag while a representative from their embassy walked out carrying a different flag. When asked about that semi-awkward moment, Candie Kung of Taiwan said, “When we know we're playing for Chinese Taipei, whatever is out there, it's out there, and we look like we're from Chinese Taipei. We're from somewhere from Asia, all right?”

Compiled by Aaron Dodson, Cody Goodwin and Don Markus.

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