The success enjoyed by China’s Shanshan Feng on the LPGA and Ladies European Tours, coupled with her Olympic bronze medal, could provide a significant boost to golf in her homeland, writes Michael Stoneman
With her bubbly personality, quirky outfits and ubiquitous smile, China’s Shanshan Feng has firmly established herself as one of the most popular characters in women’s golf since turning professional in 2007.
Add to that her 17 tournament victories around the world – including the 2012 LPGA Championship and a record three Dubai Ladies Masters titles – and it’s easy to see why her long-time swing coach, Gary Gilchrist, has called her the “Laura Davies of Chinese golf”.
But while former world no. 1 Davies’s quick wit and dry sense of humour – coupled with her four Major titles and 84 worldwide victories – helped bring attention to the women’s game in her native Britain, Feng has the potential to reach an even greater audience in the nascent golfing market of China.
The 27-year-old has already done much to prove her credentials as the star her homeland needs to help popularise the game among its 1.3 billion-plus population.
In 2008, she was the first Chinese player to become a full member of the LPGA Tour, while four years later her victory in the 2012 LPGA Championship made her the first player from mainland China – male or female – to win one of golf’s Major championships. And just last year she became the first Chinese player to win the Ladies European Tour’s Order of Merit title.
But despite all these triumphs, it is perhaps Feng’s third-placed finish at the Rio 2016 Olympics that has the greatest potential to capture the imagination of people in her homeland. With golf returning to the Games after an absence of 112 years, Feng’s bronze medal for Olympics-mad China was a hugely significant moment for the sport as it seeks to gain greater prominence in the country. And the significance of her achievement was certainly not lost on Feng.
“China is always a very strong country in the Olympics and we won so many gold, silver and bronze medals [in Rio],” she said. “For me, [my bronze medal] means a lot because golf is back in the Olympics after over 100 years and I believe it’s the first time that a Chinese athlete has competed in the event.
“Before I came [to Rio], I said that if any of the four Chinese players could get a good result, and maybe win a medal, that it is going to really change everything about golf in China. And of course, I made it, so that made me even more happy about it!”
Feng also revealed that she was very aware of the increased attention golf would get back in China during the Olympics and was keen to make a good impression.
“I knew that we would be televised all over the world,” she said. “Usually back in China you can only watch golf tournaments on the golf channels. So normal people – unless they know about golf or play golf – never get to see us play. I can walk on the street and nobody will know who I am.
“But this time, golf was televised on all the channels back in China, so even people that don't play golf could see us and see how great the Chinese players are. Of course, I made sure that I brought out my ‘A’ game and I smiled all the time! I was like, ‘Oh, people back in China are watching, so I need to make sure that I look nice!’”
Among those paying close attention was 17-year-old Muni He – China’s leading female amateur and the first in a new generation of Chinese players to have been inspired by Feng.
“Growing up, I always heard the name, Shanshan, and I've always looked up to her,” said He, who will make her debut at the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters this week. “But it really wasn't until the last two years that I've got to know her and to know that she's truly a role model, not only on the course but off the course. So not only when it comes to golf, but the way that she looks at life and everything, it's amazing. I hope I'll be able to be half as good as her one day.”
But while He aims to emulate her idol, Feng has seen enough of the teenage prodigy to claim that He has the potential to be “200 per cent better” than herself.
If that’s the case, then the future of Chinese golf looks very bright indeed. And that’s largely thanks to Feng and her beaming smile.