China on the rise, Feng leading the way
Born and raised in Guangzhou, China, Shanshan Feng never thought she would become a professional sports star.
But at 24, Feng has become that and much more.
Growing up during a time when golf competition was scarce in the People’s Republic of China, Feng found a way to stay in the game and eventually became one of the most decorated amateur golfers in the country.
“That’s why I chose golf, because it wasn’t popular,” Feng said. “Some sports were really popular, and China has a big population, so I would have a lot of competitors. When I started playing golf, I found out I had a lot of talent. It was easy to get results and I really liked that.”
Feng made golf history when she became the first golfer from China to play on the LPGA Tour during her rookie year in 2008. On June 10, 2012, Feng became the first ever golfer from mainland China to win an LPGA Tour event and making the win even more impressive was that it came at a major, the Wegmans LPGA Championship. She joined a growing list of players who made major breakthroughs with their win at the tournament, including Korea’s Se Ri Pak (1998) and Taiwan’s Yani Tseng (2008).
Just one year later, the LPGA Tour makes its first trip to the capital of China for the inaugural Reignwood LPGA Classic; a trip that Feng is has looked forward to all season. She’ll be playing alongside 15 fellow Chinese golfers from the China LPGA.
“It's really wonderful that I could play the tournament in my country, especially in the capital city, and it’s amazing that I can have so many Chinese friends playing along with me,” said Feng. “You know, for the past several years, I’m always the only player from mainland China on the Tour, so it will be fun this week.”
Although her win wasn’t immediately recognized in her native country, Feng says she has seen immense interest in the game now more than ever before.
“Actually this sport is growing very fast in China this year,” said Feng. “More international events, more young talents showing up on the world’s golf arena, most importantly more people have joined in the sport. It’s still a young sport in China, you know, it takes time.”
Feng currently ranks No. 9 in the Rolex Rankings and has earned more than $2.8 million in her five-year career.
A product of the Gary Gilchrist Golf Academy, Feng continues to work with the coach who took her from a timid teenager to a full-fledged golf star in just seven years.
Feng was recruited and offered a full-ride scholarship for golf training at the academy in 2006. At 17, Feng wasn’t completely accustomed to the culture and language and second-guessed her decision to move to the U.S. But just one year under Gilchrist’s instruction, she tied for ninth at the LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament and earned exempt status for the 2008 season. Over the next four years she went through the ups and downs of being a professional golfer but stuck with her training not knowing that she would one day make a mark in sports history.
Now as the top-ranked golfer hailing from the People’s Republic of China, Feng doesn’t expect the magic and mayhem that typically greets Yani Tseng when she returns to Taiwan or Se Ri Pak receives in Korea, however she is hopeful that the event will draw attention to the LPGA Tour.
“I really don’t have much chance to play in China so I have no idea how things will go next week,” said Feng. “But last time when I was playing National Games, I was really surprised there are quite some fans cheering for me. You know next week, both world’s top players and best Chinese players are coming and it’s the first LPGA event to come to China in five years, I believe there will be a lot of fans and I can’t wait to see everything happening in Beijing.”
Gary Gilchrist had always believed that a major championship winner could trigger an influx of golfers from countries where the sport wasn’t as popular. Considering Feng hails from the world's most-populated country, it seems nearly certain that her win would inspire more Chinese golfers.
Time will only tell.