GOLF

Feng finds winning a major isn't enough to attract mainland money

History-making victory has not catapulted Guangzhou native into Li Na territory

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2012, 6:05pm

Li Na cashed in big time when winning China's first tennis major - signing more than US40 million in endorsement l deals.

Jenny Feng Shanshan could only cash her cheque when winning China's first golf major.

Despite becoming the first Chinese golfer of either sex to win one of the big four tournaments, Feng has not seen the benefits of additional sponsorship that Li enjoyed after winning last year's French Open.

"I think tennis is different. It's been in the Olympics for quite a long time now, but golf won't be played until Rio 2016," Feng, 22, said at this week's Ricoh Women's British Open at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club. "Chinese sport is now all about the Olympics, and because Chinese people don't watch golf all that much, it's not yet as popular as tennis.

"My win has certainly allowed many more Chinese people to know about golf, and if China can win a medal at the next Olympic Games then everything will change. Right now you can't compare golf with tennis."

Feng said she has been approached by a number of potential sponsors, but no mainland companies, after her victory in the LPGA Championship in Pittsford, New York.

"A few people contacted me, but they were foreign companies - mainly Japanese and Korean. I really want a mainland Chinese sponsor," said Feng, who was born in Guangzhou and began playing at the age of 10 at the insistence of her father, Feng Xiong, who works for the Guangzhou Golf Association.

She began her trailblazing ways with nine amateur victories, including three consecutive wins in the China Women's Amateur Championship. In 2007, Feng went on to become the first mainland Chinese player to earn playing rights to the LPGA Tour after winning a place at qualifying school, and turned pro.

"I was very lucky because my coach, Gary Gilchrist, was working at Hilton Head Island and he talked to the owner of the club and got me a full scholarship," Feng said. "All I needed to pay was my school fees and my tournament expenses.

"My family is not rich, and in the first year I nearly spent all of the money my father gave me to cover my school expenses. I saw him being interviewed on TV after I qualified, and he said that if I hadn't qualified that year he would have sold our house so I would be able to go through qualifying the following year. He was prepared to give everything he had for me to qualify.

"The good thing is that I managed to qualify at the first attempt, so we still have a house!"

Despite her considerable amateur success and winning her tour card at the first attempt, Feng said self-doubt crept in as she failed to record a victory after more than three years on the LPGA Tour.

"Basically I didn't have the confidence - I was thinking, will I ever win again? I'd had some chances but I just couldn't convert them into wins."

Last year things began to change, and four top-10 finishes indicated a victory was not far away. Feng tied for eighth in the LPGA State Farm Classic to see her career earnings go through the US$1 million mark.

In March she shot a 10-under-par total score to win the inaugural World Ladies Championship on Hainan Island, and teamed up with compatriot Ye Li-ying to also collect the team prize.

A further three victories on the Japan LPGA Tour saw the confidence return to Feng's game, and also saw her reach the top-10 in the world rankings.

"I was playing well before the LPGA Championship and I was in a play-off in Singapore, so I came really close," Feng said. "I just concentrated on my game and I didn't look at the scoreboards so I didn't know what the other players were doing. In a major everyone has pressure, so if I don't know what the other players are doing I can just focus on my own game.

"When I looked at the scoreboard after I finished I saw I was leading by two shots. My goal was simply to have a top-10 finish. It was quite a surprise.

"It was an amazing feeling to be the first person from mainland China to win a major championship. More people in China, the US and the rest of the world now know more about Chinese golf because of my victory, and I felt really happy about that."

Feng shot a bogey-free final round of 67 to win by two shots and rise to number five in the rankings. Feng attributes some of her good fortune to her friendship on tour with Taiwanese players, in particular Tseng Ya-ni.

"Most of my friends on tour are Taiwanese players because we all speak Mandarin," Feng said. "Ya-ni is a very good friend and we're the same age. She has always encouraged me - we play a lot of practice rounds together and we share the same coach. On my second year on tour she said I was hitting the ball better, and that gave me confidence my game was on the right track."

Although Feng enjoyed a successful amateur career she did so without the benefit of a regular coach, and said her father was responsible for most of her early training.

"We didn't have many good coaches in China back then - in fact we still don't," she said. "My father and I figured things out - he's a 10 handicapper and knows my game well. Even though I beat him all the time he can still see things in my swing."

Feng attributes the success of Asian players on the LPGA Tour to hard work and a strong mental approach, even though some of them, in keeping with many male Asian pros, struggle to cope with western food.

"If you really want to play on the tour then food is not the first thing to concentrate on. Food should not be an excuse not to go overseas," she said. "Many Korean and Japanese players don't like the food overseas, so their managers take rice cookers with them and make rice balls every morning - it's just their way of dealing with things.

"I think the Asian girls are mentally very strong and of course we work really hard - especially the Korean players.

"I know my success has encouraged more Chinese players to work hard to prepare themselves to qualify for the LPGA Tour - I could see it in them even before I won in New York.

"A lot of them want to play on the LPGA Tour, but there are a number of reasons why they can't - and it's not just about the food.

"Sometimes their families are not rich enough so they just don't have the money, or they don't have sponsors. As I have found out, it's very hard to get sponsors in China. There are a lot of good teenage players in China - the 15- to 17-year-olds are showing great promise. I'm expecting to see some of them on tour in the near future."