Standing in the middle of the 18th fairway at The Club at Carlton Woods, the moment had arrived. Seven years into her professional golf career, this felt like Angel Yin’s chance to claim a major championship. Her tee shot had landed in the right center of the fairway, and in a playoff against Lilia Vu, Yin now had just a 5 iron left into the Par 5.
After so much doubt and anguish and frustration, after years of second-guessing herself, it looked like Angel Yin finally found her way. She just needed one more great swing, and all the pressure would be on Vu to match.
Yin and Vu knew each other well. The two Southern Californians, a year apart in age, had once dominated the junior golf scene. They chose different paths on their way to adulthood — Yin taking an early leap to professional golf in 2016 and Vu taking the collegiate route at UCLA — but now their paths were crossing again.
One of them was about to win their first major.
Yin stood over the ball, a gentle breeze in her face. She visualized the shot she wanted to hit, a towering draw over the lake. Everything was quiet. She drew back her club and fired her hips. The ball started right at the flag.
It did not stay there.
It drifted left, then farther left. Yin watched in anguish as it curled toward the grandstands.
“Fore!” Yin shouted.
Her ball continued to tumble out of the sky, splashing into the lake a foot from the bank in front of the green. A groan rippled through the crowd.
Yin, who had played so well throughout the Chevron Championship, had let it slip from her grasp. She could only watch in shock as Vu made a birdie to put an exclamation point on the win.
Standing at the podium after the loss, fielding various questions, the 24-year-old reflected on one of the most exhausting days of her life. “You’re taking the loss pretty well so far,” GOLF.com’s Zephyr Melton observed.
“Watch, I’m going to go home and cry,” Yin said, laughing.
What do you do when someone’s greatest triumph is your biggest disappointment?
In Angel Yin’s case, you rely on the mental fortress you’ve spent years building. That’s why, as Vu was lifting the trophy, Yin was still smiling.
“I think I’ve just come a long way,” Yin said. “I’m just really happy with who I am, where I am, and what I’m doing right now. Just a lot to appreciate. If I can talk about how much I appreciate life right now, I’ll get emotional — (but) not over this.”
When Yin thinks back on her 2023 season, a year where she won for the first time, where she is (projected) to finish 13th in the Race to CME Globe, and climbed to the best world ranking of her career, it’s how she handled the disappointment of losing a major that sticks out the most.
All the hard work, in that moment, was far behind her.
Angel Yin knew she had already arrived.
As affable and personable as athletes come, it might come as a surprise that Yin willingly spent most of her days as a kid alone on a golf course.
A lot of that time was also spent in observation. Yin wasn’t taking lessons, so she’d watch a range full of “old men,” hovering her driver like Tiger Woods. Just by observing, she developed one of the most powerful swings the eye could see. First exposed to golf from word of mouth, her mother mistakenly purchased a book on croquet to learn more. “I didn't grow up in a golfing household,” Yin said. “There was the knowledge that we lacked, and we didn't really seek more because the truth is, financially, to seek more, it's hard. Not everyone has that kind of money. We just did what we thought we needed to do and that was enough.”
Despite being one of the most promising prospects in junior golf – nearly qualifying for the U.S. Open at 11, medaling at the U.S. Women’s Amateur and reaching the final at the U.S. Girls Junior – she only won once on the AJGA, where she spent most of her amateur career. She still landed an offer from USC, one of the best programs in the entire country. Close to home, close to great courses – what could be a better fit?
But for Yin, a college education felt like something she could pursue at any point. She didn’t want to “miss the train” that was professional golf. She took the leap in 2016 and turned pro.
Yin’s few years playing professional golf turned out to be an education of its own, one she never knew she needed. At times, Yin was too powerful for her own good. She lacked any course management and had to learn the hard way about controlling her distances and shot-shaping.
Even amid the growing pains, she’d call the start of her professional career “fortunate.” She spent her rookie year on the LET and earned LPGA status at the end of it at Q-School. It only took a year before she earned her first professional win, and though she’d spent years without one, it felt like Yin would always be around. Her trajectory kept going up.
Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
In her lowest moments, she could barely climb out of bed. She didn’t even recognize herself.
Some of it was pain. But Yin was also a prisoner of self-doubt.
She was 24 years old, still full of potential, but in 2021 — Yin’s third season on the LPGA Tour — nothing felt right. She couldn’t break through and get a win. She’d been tinkering with her swing, obsessively trying to reconstruct it to look the way it did when she played free and loose as an amateur, but all that work caused a grueling nerve injury in her left shoulder. On top of that, a recent diagnosis related to organ issues made things even worse. She was completely lost in her golf game, and to add insult to injury, she'd missed out on perhaps the year’s biggest goal: making a third Solheim Cup team in a row.
When the first week of September arrived, she refused to watch it. “I saw the scores. I was rooting for America. But I didn’t watch any golf,” she said. “I tried to stay out of it as much as possible, but it’s hard. My friends are all golfers. Everyone talks about it.”
She struggled to block out the noise.
“It was just too much for me to handle,” Yin said. “My reality collapsed a little bit that year.”
Four missed cuts in a row followed, mentally pushing to the absolute brink. She somehow managed to make the Tour Championship, but her body ultimately failed her. She withdrew after the first round, effectively ending her season.
One day, in the midst of her lowest point, Yin received a random DM from the site director of the Riverside LPGA-USGA Girls Golf chapter. Jakeishya Le knew of Yin from her local success as an amateur, but was a fan from afar, thinking Yin was still locally-based. She asked if Yin would be willing to host a clinic for the young girls, many of whom had never touched a golf club.
Plenty of professionals would have blown off the request, mired in the depths of their slump, but something about it piqued Yin’s interest. She flew from Florida back to Southern California to teach the group, ranging from ages 3-12.
What transpired next was what Le calls “the funniest clinic I’ve ever seen.” One child asked Yin to demonstrate a trick shot, and Yin threw the ball up and kicked it “like a soccer ball.”
Another participant asked how she hit the ball so far, and she responded: “It’s the drugs,” she deadpanned. “Just kidding!” Maybe it wasn’t quite the clinic Le imagined she’d get from a professional golfer, but it blossomed into a fast friendship.
All that laughter from that day was slowly healing Yin.
“When you go through enough pain in life, you just go and laugh at it,” Yin said. “I also have this weird habit, when something is really serious, I just laugh at it. I’m happy it hasn’t gotten me in trouble.”
2021 wasn’t a laughing matter, and neither was 2022. She had finally begun recovering from her nerve injury, but her health issues persisted. Her livelihood began to feel like it hung in the balance. Money grew tighter, and her play wasn’t getting any better. Her status was in limbo, and she had no choice but to play more. Her best finish was a T3 at the Cognizant Founders Cup, but she wouldn’t sniff anything close to a top ten again that year. She missed out on the Tour Championship entirely.
In even dire straits than before, Yin decided to go against the grain. She had an epiphany. Instead of writing letters to sponsors to fill up a patchy schedule, why not listen to her body and delay the start of her season?
She didn’t tee it up until late March. Her first two starts were a mess. 76th place at the LPGA Drive On Championship at Superstition Mountain. A missed cut at the DIO Implant LA Open.
But then came Chevron. Something clicked, and she finally found her wings.
Yin opened with a 69 in the first round, then surged into the final group with a 67 on Saturday. She’d even been able to laugh off an ugly shank on the 17th hole while in contention and birdie 18 to get into the playoff with Vu.
It was all right there for the taking … until that 5 iron found the pond.
‘You’re on the right path,’ she told herself. ‘Something’s working. Let’s keep digging.’
“My entire life, it’s always been like, ‘You need to show no emotion,’” Yin said.
That’s what Yin thought the best golfers were supposed to do.
Flatlining, she called it.
Occasionally, coaches and mentors would encourage her to open up, to channel that emotion. Juli Inkster tried to convince her it was okay, even productive, to get mad at times. But Yin always defaulted to trying to suppress her feelings.
It would be years before she understood how much it was holding her back.
At the Chevron, you could see Yin wrestling with her emotions, still trying to bottle them up. There was joy when she almost chipped in on 13. There was heartache when she found the water on 18, and when her second attempt over the lake landed 10 feet short of the cup, effectively ending the playoff. But she wasn’t quite ready to let go.
She wouldn’t miss another cut for the rest of the season. She was enjoying golf more than she ever had, even without that win and even within those close calls. Why, she began to wonder, at the pinnacle of her career, wasn’t she allowed to show that joy? Who would it hurt if she hung her head to diffuse her frustration? At the Women’s British Open at Walton Heath, she climbed within striking distance on Saturday, only for it to fall apart once again in the final round.
What good was flatlining doing for her game?
Something was missing, and it wasn’t just a win.
Three weeks after a successful Solheim Cup — she went 2-1 and earned a crucial point for the United States in singles by defeating Celine Boutier — Yin was playing one of the most exhausting stretches of golf of the year. Her body felt like it was breaking down again, but she kept making birdies. At the Buick LPGA Shanghai, she shot a sizzling 7-under 65 in the third round, making her the 54-hole leader going into Sunday.
Maybe this time, she wondered, things might be different.
She didn’t want to inundate herself with golf in preparation for the next day. But she also wasn’t interested in rest. She was more motivated by watching another set of professional athletes — tennis stars — who were chasing a trophy at the Shanghai Masters. Yin and her caddie, Markus Zechmann, went into town to watch Andrey Rublev and Grigor Dimitrov play in the semifinals.
As she watched the match, Yin noticed something about Rublev, the fifth-ranked player in the world. He effused a lot of emotions. Anger. Sighs. Cheers. Joy. As Rublev claimed the second set over Dimitrov, Zechmann leaned over to Yin.
“Rublev’s body language is bad,” Zechmann said.
Yin quickly disagreed.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “I think there’s something to it.”
If there’s one thing Angel Yin knows, it’s that imitation has always served her well. A few holes into her final round in Shanghai, she decided to employ a new tactic. She’d be a little more expressive. A little more herself. Talking to her ball. Shaking her head at the lip-outs. Sometimes, like watching Tiger hover his driver all those years ago, she just needed to see something she could imitate before she could bring it to life.
“Yes, come on!” she yelled after crushing a drive on the 17th, setting up her last birdie of the day.
Final rounds are always a grind, and Yin shot her worst round of the week, a 2-under 70, but it was steady enough to force a playoff — and a rematch with a red-hot Lilia Vu.
Yin hit a great drive on the first playoff hole, snatching her tee from the ground before the ball had even reached its apex. But her approach shot rightfully induced a bit of deja vu.
She had water to the left, and a pin tucked back left.
Even Vu realized what going on: It was Chevron all over again.
This time, Yin wouldn’t have to yell fore. Her beautifully-struck approach knifed through the air. She held her finish for an extra beat. It landed ten feet below the hole. Vu’s approach went fifteen feet above it. Suddenly, Yin had the advantage.
When Vu missed her birdie putt by inches, both players knew the tournament was Yin’s for the taking.
“Today was just Angel's day,” Vu later said. “I'm happy for her.”
She crouched over the ball, and with a steady stroke, she sent the ball trickling toward the cup. Yin seemed to know from the second it left her putter it would find its way in. Smiling ear to ear, 159 starts later, Angel Yin was an LPGA champion.
She pumped her fist again and again. She wanted to feel everything.