Shanshan Feng could spark a Chinese golf boom

By Lance Hanlin

When Se Ri Pak won two majors as a rookie in 1998, it sparked a golf revolution in South Korea. Today, women’s golf is dominated by players from the small mountainous country. South Korea’s much larger neighbor to the west is primed to have a similar type of explosion, with 23-year-old professional Shanshan Feng leading the charge.
By winning the LPGA Championship in June, Feng became the first golfer from mainland China to win a major championship. She is currently fourth in the Women’s World Golf Rankings.

“I think I’m just lucky, you know?” Feng said. “There are good players from China now. I became the first one, but I’m sure there will be more people winning in the States and in the majors. I would say if Koreans can, Chinese can.”

The sport is relatively new to the People’s Republic but is experiencing tremendous growth, swelling from just 50,000 golfers to more than three million in less than a decade. That number of golfers is projected to grow by another 20 percent over the next 10 years.

Feng could do for golf what Yao Ming did for basketball in the world’s most populous country (around 1.3 billion).

“The thing about the Asian culture, if they see something that works and is successful, they copy it,” Feng’s coach Gary Gilchrist said. “They see somebody that has come to America, gone to an academy and had great success. They want to do the same thing.”

Feng took up the sport at age 10 and came to the United States to train when she was 17, attending the Hilton Head Island-based International Junior Golf Academy, before it became the Hank Haney IJGA. She was considered one of the top junior prospects in China but wanted to improve her English and improve her game against the best players in the world.

“Shanshan, or Jenny as we called her, was very focused on being the first person from China to be fully exempt on the LPGA Tour,” said Matt Fields, the current director of golf at the HHIJGA. “She had 100 percent belief it was going to happen and it would only be a matter of time.”

After less than a year at the academy, Feng’s goal became a reality when she made it through qualifying school on her first attempt, becoming the first Chinese player on the LPGA Tour in 2007. She followed Gilchrist when he left the IJGA to open his own academy just outside of Orlando, Fla. She still lives and trains there.

“Her putting and chipping wasn’t all that strong back then,” Gilchrist said. “She had to develop a lot more variety around the greens. Watching her grow and mature as a person and as a golfer has been amazing.”

After initially struggling to break through on the LPGA Tour, Feng headed back east to play on the LPGA of Japan Tour.

“That pretty much turned her whole mental game around,” Gilchrist said. “In Japan, it’s pretty windy and it rains a lot. She’s good in that weather because she’s such a good ballstriker.”

Feng won two Japan Tour events in 2011 and added another this May before returning to the United States for the LPGA Championship at Locust Hill Country Club in Pittsford, N.Y. In the final round, she fired a bogey-free 67 to win the tournament by two strokes.

Her best finish in 16 previous majors was a tie for 22nd.

“Earlier this year, I set two goals,” Feng said. “One was to win a tournament and the second was to finish top 10 in a major. I got two in one that week. I had never played well at Locust Hill but everything just came together. I found I actually like that course. It fits me.”

Feng has seven top 10 finishes on the LPGA Tour this year, including a tie for fourth in the U.S. Women’s Open. Her season earnings are $1,063,337. She has continued to dominate the Japan Tour, posting three more wins including the Japan Women’s Open.  She also won a Ladies European Tour event this year.

Her future goals are to continue her success on the LPGA Tour and possibly play for her country in the 2016 Olympics.

“She’s got an opportunity to win at least two or three more majors in her career,” said Gilchrist, who also trains several other top professionals. “I think she’s a person that could really relish the fact that she can be a light to the rest of Chinese golf in the near future.”

Around 1.3 billion are watching.

INTERNATIONAL CONNECTION

Since 1995, more than 2,000 junior golfers have trained at the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy, formerly the International Junior Golf Academy. Many have gone on to play collegiate and professional golf. Here are a few notable alumni:

Shanshan Feng
Class of 2007
Hometown: Guangzhou, China
Highlights: Currently on the LPGA Tour. Won the 2012 LPGA Championship, becoming the first golfer from mainland China to earn a major. First and only Chinese player on the LPGA Tour. Currently ranked No. 4 in the Women’s World Golf Rankings.

Stan Gautier
Class of 2011
Hometown: Paris, France
Highlights: Freshman at Arizona State University. Played for the European team in the 2008 Junior Ryder Cup and the 2001 Jacques Leglise. Was the youngest winner of the French National Amateur Championship in 2008 at age 15.

Morgan Hoffman
Class of 2011
Born: Wyckoff, New Jersey
Highlights: Currently on the Web.com Tour. Before turning professional, he held the No. 1 spot in the World Amateur Golf Rankings for a time in 2009 and played in that year’s Walker Cup. Played in 2010 and 2012 U.S. Opens.

I.K. Kim
Class of 2006
Hometown: Seoul, South Korea
Highlights: Currently on LPGA Tour. Has won three LPGA Tour events – the 2008 Longs Drugs Challenge, the 2009 LPGA State Farm Classic and the 2010 Lorena Ochoa Invitational. She also won the 2009 Dubai Ladies Masters on Ladies European Tour.

Song-Hee Kim
Class of 2006
Hometown: Seoul, South Korea
Highlights: Currently on the LPGA Tour. She has $3,661,520 in career earnings. Finished second in the 2010 LPGA Championship and third in the 2010 Kraft Nabisco Championship. Posted five wins on the Futures Tour.

Stephanie Meadow
Class of 2010
Hometown: Jordanstown, Northern Ireland
Highlights: Junior at the University of Alabama. Over the summer she clinched a Curtis Cup victory for Great Britain and Ireland and won the Ladies British Open Amateur Championship. Holds Alabama’s school record for tournament wins with five.

Rika Park
Class of 2010
Hometown: Fujieda Shi-Shizouka, Japan
Highlights: Sophomore at the University of Miami. Recorded a team-high seven top 20 finishes as a freshman and placed in the top 10 four times. Had the second-lowest stroke average on the team with a 75.91. Rolex Junior All-American.

Mariajo Uribe
Class of 2007
Hometown: Giron, Columbia
Highlights: Currently on the LPGA Tour. Won the 2011 HSBC Brazil Cup. Won 2007 U.S. Women’s Amateur at age 17. Played college golf at UCLA and was an All-American first team selection in 2008 and 2009.

Richard Werenski
Class of 2010
Hometown: South Hadley, Mass.
Highlights: Junior at Georgia Tech. Over the summer, he won the Porter Cup at 17-under, the second-lowest score ever posted in the event. Qualified for every event in the spring and earned his best finish at the ACC Championship (T7).

Marta Silva Zamora
Class of 2008
Hometown: Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Highlights: Tabbed 2011 National Player of the Year by the National Golf Coaches Association after her senior year at the University of Georgia. Named 2011 SEC Golfer of the Year and 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year.



 

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