What are the odds an off-hand suggestion 8,000 miles away, eight years ago would lead us to here – the Manulife LPGA Financial LPGA Classic, where two Chinese flags waved proudly amongst the second-round leaderboard as play concluded?
Take a second to think about the chances. Upwards of 3.5 billion women walking the earth. Of those, 79 teed it up on the weekend at the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic.
Now take a second to consider the two that sat in the top five – 25-year-old Shanshan Feng and 18-year-old Xi Yu (Janet) Lin. Both from the world’s largest country – China with a population around 1.4 billion and owners of around 20 percent of the global population. Both the only two Chinese players in the top 150 of the Rolex Rankings. Both from the third largest city in China – the port city of Guangzhou with a population of 14 million.
That’s not the crazy part, though. Not even close. The crazy part is how they got to this point.
Eight years ago, Feng’s father watched proudly as his daughter rose to the top of the Chinese amateur circuit as a 17-year-old. But back at his job at China’s Institute of Sport, he noticed his coworker’s 10-year-old daughter was athletic, too, and couldn’t help but wonder why she wasn’t playing golf. Her mother, Du Jing, was the country’s first member of their women’s national soccer team, so he knew she had the athletic genes necessary and curiosity got the best of him.
“I was like, you know, national junior champion and then my dad was asking her mom, why doesn’t your daughter try golf? Seems like my daughter is successful now and maybe if your daughter tries, she can be good too,” Feng said.
That young girl? Xi Yu Lin, the 18-year-old LPGA rookie.
“I guess they made the right decision,” said Feng with a laugh.
Lin was initially hesitant but her parents pushed to give it a shot and drop it if she didn’t like it. She acquiesced and Feng’s father took her with them after school. There was a month acclimation period before she was granted full membership to the Ghangzhou Junior Golf Team so she had to practice her swing, hitting air, while the rest of the kids hit balls on the range.
“But after that, when I started hitting balls, it was so interesting,” Lin said.
Before golf, she swam, played tennis, badminton, basketball, soccer, table tennis and ran track. After that first drive shot seemingly into the clouds and that first putt took the final trickle over the ledge below ground, there was only golf. She was a natural and her ascension in the game was rapid.
Feng would end up moving to the United States for a full golf scholarship at the International Golf Academy a couple months after Lin first got hooked. While Feng’s career blew up in the states, Lin was accomplishing things even Feng hadn’t at that age. She qualified for the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open as a 15-year-old and won two CLPGA events after turning professional at the age of 15. Two years later she qualified for the Ladies European Tour, waiting until she hit the LPGA’s minimum age of 18 to attempt to qualify for the LPGA. When she finally did last fall, buoyed by the confidence that came from a 17th place finish at the 2013 Ricoh Women’s British Open, the first time was a charm, earning full status on the LPGA Tour for the 2014 season.
“This year I’ve been doing many things I never thought I could do that fast. Before I was hoping I could get into LPGA before I’m 20,” Lin said. “I’m growing up pretty fast. It’s faster than I think so it’s good. I have more opportunities now.”
Opportunities like Saturday, walking up to the first tee on the tour she’s always dreamed of playing on three shots and two groups back of her idol – Feng. She ultimately didn’t cash in, falling from solo fifth to 39th over the course of the weekend, but the moment wasn’t lost on Feng or Lin.
“That’s not normal. Used to be just myself,” Feng said. “I watched her when she started playing golf, and I’m really happy for her. This year I’m really happy that finally we have a second Chinese girl on the tour because then I’m not that lonely.”
Who would have thought that would be filled with the former driving range tag along who lived down the road. Lin’s emergence highlights a sense of responsibility and hope that Feng feels as the de facto figurehead of Chinese women’s golf. Golf isn’t huge in numbers in China yet, but it’s growing at a rapid rate and the hope is there for Feng. Hope for China’s future place in the game and hope that China’s Olympic dreams in golf might have a second contender and that one day Chinese golf could be spoken about with the same esteem as their regional counterpart South Korea. China, for example, didn’t have enough players to qualify for the eight-team International Crown, but two Chinese players just left college after just one season to attempt to qualify for the LPGA and there’s a host of other juniors coming through the ranks as the game’s participation and number of courses continues to expand dramatically.
“I really want to play representing my own country, and then if I don’t get the chance to play it’s still okay because that means the younger players are doing really well so I’ll feel happy for them, too,” Feng said.
However, when it comes to Feng’s protégé, the two have become very good friends over the years and Feng’s frequently taking her to dinner on the road or giving advice about life on tour. Lin’s always picking her brain, hoping to smooth the acclimation process and learn anything she can to apply to her own game. Surprisingly, Feng’s most prominent advice is perhaps the opposite of what one might think.
“I told her not to practice too much because from what I’ve seen, a lot of the rookie girls, they just work so hard like from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and then they’re like so tired into the weekend so they don’t make cuts,” Feng said. “So that’s what I told her, you need to practice like properly and then just go out and make a lot of friends, feel like this is home for you.”
Over the course of the season, it’s becoming more and more like home to Lin, who goes by Janet in the United States. The Chinese national team had coaches from Scotland and New Zealand that spoke fluent Chinese that helped her with her English in anticipation of a move like this, and she has a traveling road manager to accompany her on tour. But you can’t replace the feeling of family and that’s been the hardest adjustment.
“So far the traveling is the hardest part. America is really far from my home. Far from my parents. They stay in China and only came in Texas,” Lin said. “I miss them a lot.”
It’s the sight of Feng, though, that makes her feel somewhat back at home again, and she’s just waiting for the day when she’ll be paired up at an LPGA event with her idol like she was in two rounds at the LET’s Mission Hills World Championship in her native China.
“It would be great, we can talk in Chinese,” said Lin with a laugh.