China's Feng happy there's a new kid in town
Star delighted to be joined at British Open by a fellow talent from Guangzhou, teen Lin
Feng Shanshan has been the figurehead for Chinese women golfers since becoming the first player from China to become a member of the LPGA Tour in 2008, and the first Chinese golfer to win a major when she took the 2012 LPGA Championship. But she may not be ploughing a lone furrow for much longer, after 17-year-old Lin Xiyu joined her in the field for the Ricoh British Women's Open this weekend.
Lin, from Guangzhou like Feng, carded a flawless seven-under-par 65 over the notoriously treacherous Kingsbarns Links to qualify for the season's penultimate major at the Old Course, St Andrews.
She proved she was worthy by comfortably making the Open cut at St Andrews, her four-under tally putting her five shots ahead of Feng, who barely made it into the weekend.
Feng is a bit older (she turns 24 tomorrow), but already a veteran compared to Lin, with 24 major tournaments under her belt and one won. Far from seeing Lin as a potential threat to her leading-light status, Feng says she'll do everything she can to get Lin to join her among the top stars of the women's game.
"We come from the same city in the same province in the same country, so I will do whatever I can to help her, while for me, it's nice to have a fellow Chinese player in the field, makes me feel more at home," said Feng.
"In China, we have two national squads for the girls, one for the players who play and train in China, mostly at the new National Centre at Nanshan, another for professionals like me who play overseas, six in each squad and it appears to be working well so far.
"With Greg Norman as the figurehead coach and Michael Dickie as the women's Olympic squad coach [although the Scot is rumoured to be close to quitting] we are in good shape for 2016 in Rio de Janeiro."
Asked if she would swap her major title for Olympic gold, Feng says: "Over your career, majors are how you are measured, but, short-term, an Olympic medal - and my country would obviously want it to be gold - would be a huge achievement."
Golf has been booming in China since its inclusion in the Games, and though for most players, men and women, the majors remain the pinnacle of the sport, Feng admits: "In China, there is huge prestige attached to the Olympics, so maybe that situation doesn't exist for me.
"The Olympics are changing things for golf in China, the chance to add some new medals in Rio in 2016, so the government is now investing much more money into the development of the game," she adds.
"People ask if I feel any pressure as China's best hope for a medal in golf in Rio, but I don't really feel pressure, or at least I have found ways of managing and minimising it."
Feng watched Phil Mickelson win the men's British Open and highlights a key disparity. "Phil won US$1.4 million but the winner this week at St Andrews will 'only' win US$420,000. In tennis Li Na would win the same as the men's champion at Wimbledon so why not in golf? We play four rounds, just like the guys."
Feng signed for global sports and media agency IMG earlier this year with a view to increasing her commercial appeal, becoming a stablemate of tennis star Li.
But she will have to go some way to emulate Li who, according to Forbes magazine, eclipsed her US$3.2 million on-court earnings with a stunning US$15 million in endorsements, the second highest paid tennis player behind Maria Sharapova.
"For the time being, I'm just happy to be able to concentrate on my golf, and I can leave IMG to look for the best sponsors and partners for me over time," Feng said. "It's difficult for some Chinese companies, but as a US-based Chinese number-one sportswoman playing all over the world, I'm confident the deals will follow."
Feng would also like to see more LPGA events taking place in China, observing, "We have one at present, the Reignwood LPGA Classic in Beijing with a prize fund of US$1.8 million, but with so many big companies in China looking outwards and western brands talking to China, there must be room for two, three more events back home, maybe not majors - that would depend on the LPGA - but US$2 million to US$3 million events for sure."
Feng has been the epitome of consistency this season, missing just one cut in 12 outings. She was top 10 in two of the three majors to date, tied ninth in the defence of her LPGA Championship.
US Solheim Cup star and major winner Stacy Lewis is mindful of the current and future challenge from China.
"I think China is a place that, as a tour, we were looking to play there [and] Shanshan's success is why we are going there this year," said Lewis. "I think that in the next few years in China, we we'll see a lot more players coming out.
"I think this year [Feng] probably has not played quite as well as she did last year, but she's a good enough player that, at a major she's going to show up and you can expect her to be there."
As for Lin, her strong start at this Open suggests she will compete for the top titles in future.
"I'm still in shock at qualifying, but played really well on the links at Kingsbarns," she said at the start of the tournament. "It's not something I am used to but shooting 65 isn't bad for the first time and it is a bonus for me to have Shanshan in the field too. I look up to her and she has said if I need any help or support, I just need to ask."