TAIPEI, Taiwan — Nobody has ever dominated professional golf quite like Taiwan’s Yani Tseng.
Since turning pro back in 2008, the affable 23-year-old from the outskirts of Taipei has won more majors than future Hall of Famers Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh combined.
Now, if she could only work out how to get paid like those guys.
Despite breaking every record known to golf — most of which were held by Woods — and being arguably the most productive athlete in all of sports over the past two years, Tseng has struggled to attract the big-ticket sponsors that circle the sport’s largely affluent demographic.
According to Forbes, Tseng didn’t even crack the Top 10 of the world’s highest paid female athletes in 2011. That distinction went to tennis player, fashionista, pinup girl and world No.7 Maria Sharapova, who raked in $25 million for the year.
Sharapova, who hasn't won a Grand Slam final since 2008, counts Nike, Evian, Sony Ericsson and Tiffany among her stable of sponsors. The statuesque Russian star combines runway model looks and social-media savvy to build her brand globally. Over 6.8 million Facebook users have signed up to her fan page.
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The laidback Tseng, who has won three of the six elite Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour events this year and finished one stroke back in the rest, has about 60,000 fans on her page. She also earned about $3.2 million in 2011, almost all of which came from prize money winnings.
So, why doesn't Tseng get more attention? Where is her flock of "Linsane" fans?
Gender and race undeniably play major roles in determining endorsement payouts. Forbes, which factors in salaries, prize money, appearance fees, licensing income and endorsement deals in its estimates wrote that the “ten highest paid women made $113 million,” while the Top 10 male athletes made a combined $449 million in 2011.
Jackie Shao, a professor of sports management at Taipei’s Aletheia University, is blunt about the fact that attractiveness plays a role in landing a sponsor.
“Unfortunately sex appeal is always an issue in sport sponsorships. Ideally her look should not be relevant to her endorsement chances, but … ,” she said.
It doesn't help Tseng’s cause that Asian golfers have found increasing success on the women’s tour over the past few years. In 2011, nine of the world’s top 20 were from China, Taiwan, South Korea or Japan.
“You look at a guy like Jeremy Lin. He’s Asian American and not Asian. He’s a mediocre starter on a mediocre team. But the world goes nuts. He could make $20 million in endorsements in his sleep. But that’s because he’s such a rarity: an Asian guy holding his own in the NBA,” said Asia media analyst Chang Guo-hua, who admits to being more of a fan of the injured New York Knicks point guard than the homegrown Tsai.
“There’s also this weird vicious circle when it comes to the marketability of Asian stars. Asian companies wait for a Western stamp of approval, which is what happened with Lin and Yao Ming,” Chang continued.
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Still, it's not like Tseng has been ignored completely. In a down economy, she has already racked up close to $8.5 million in prize money during her short career.
Tseng was widely reported to have declined a $25 million deal with a Chinese company last year — a deal that was said to include the perks of a private jet and a multi-million dollar Beijing villa.
Perhaps she declined the offer due to her extreme patriotism. That alleged offer was reported to have hinged on the proviso that Tseng switch citizenship from Taiwan to China, so she could suit up for China’s national team. China considers Taiwan, just 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait, a renegade province and has vowed to use force if necessary to bring it back into the fold.
Tseng, who was named 2011 Player of the Year by the Golf Writers Association of America on April 5, said she doesn't care whether she's playing for Taiwan or the mainland.
“I feel that I’m bringing glory to all ethnic Chinese across the world," she said at a recent press event. "I’m just proud to be Chinese.”
This was the second year in a row that Tseng won Player of the Year. But this one came in a landslide, after 95 percent of the writers cast their first place vote for her.
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The 5-foot-6-inch Tsai won 12 tournaments last year, including two of the highly coveted majors. A nondescript cupboard in her parents’ nondescript west Taipei home now hosts five major trophies. In her last 27 LPGA Tour events, Tseng recorded a staggering 10 wins, two seconds, a third, three fifths, a sixth, a seventh and an eighth.
“The story of her turning down all that money to play for China has started to resonate with sponsors. That, coupled with the fact that she’s easily Taiwan’s most accomplished athlete, will help her secure more endorsements. And the more she gets over here, the more interest she will generate in the States,” said media analyst Chang.
“She scored some major Taiwanese brands like Acer and Taiwan Mobile recently, which will kick in next year. All she needs is that big-money Nike or Titleist deal,” he added.
But for Tseng, who started playing the game when she was 5, all that really matters is winning that sixth major and being the youngest pro of either gender to enter the Hall of Fame. And with the way she’s started out in 2012, most pundits expect both of those accomplishment boxes to be ticked off by summer.
At last week’s $2 million Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, Calif., she nearly did just that.
“I just hang in there and do my best, and try to not worry about what other people are doing. ... If you don't win, it's OK. You try next time. If you win, well then you’re good,” she said at a press conference after going down by one stroke to eventual winner Sun Young Yoo of South Korea.