It’s no secret that Asian women have dominated the LGPA Tour for years. Among the top 100 golfers today, more than half hail from Korea or Japan, not to mention Taiwan’s Yani Tseng, who has five major titles on her resume.
Going into this weekend, Asian golfers have won 10 of the last 11 women’s majors. One of those was the two-shot victory in the 2012 LPGA championship by Shanshan Feng, the first women’s champion to emerge from the People’s Republic of China.
Feng’s feat was shown on live television back home. As she celebrated that Sunday next to the 18th green, she wrapped herself in the flag of her native country.
“At that moment I was really proud to tell everybody that I was a Chinese,” Feng said.
Feng’s recent accomplishments are all the more impressive because until the early 1980s, the Chinese government banned golf as too “elite.” Feng started playing at age 10, when competition was scarce.
“My first tournament, the national tournament, it was funny: in my group there were only four people,” she recalled. “So if I beat one, then I’ll be top three in the country. I ended up finished second.”
Feng, who turns 24 on Monday, has come a long way since then. She’s currently ranked seventh in the world and has won almost $1 million on the LPGA Tour, which she joined in 2008.
It’s helped, Feng says, that she came to the United States a few years earlier to train and learn English. Her coach Gary Gilchrist recalls that Feng also needed to develop confidence in her game.
“The first few years were really difficult for her because she saw some girls that she played golf with do so well. One was Yani Tseng, and I told her, ‘You need to stay patient. Your time will come,’ Gilchrist said. “And then last year she had that breakout year, which was fantastic to see her, win her first major, that was unbelievable.”
The LPGA will hold its first tournament in China this October. But Feng isn’t the only emissary for Chinese golf. Last April, fourteen-year-old Tianlang Guan played in the Masters. He made the cut — and plenty of headlines.
China has a key booster in golfing legend Jack Nicklaus, whose company has designed dozens of new courses throughout the country.
“The amount of golfers in China is growing tremendously fast as you can imagine,” said Paul Stringer, the Executive Vice President of Nicklaus Design. “They think that there’s in the neighborhood of two million active golfers right now. They think that’s going to get up to 20 million before very long.”
Junior golf is flourishing in particular, he says. Nicklaus has opened a golf academy in China. A Nicklaus academy in South Korea has turned out a number of LPGA golfers in that country.
“Jack has been involved with China golf for a long time, not only on a professional level but more recently in promoting the game and in promoting junior golf,” Stringer said. “I think what was evident was when young Guan was at the Masters and certainly getting some time with Jack, and he was asking a lot just because of Jack’s experience and obviously Jack’s willingness to tutor and help these kids and promote the game.”
Sean Pyun, the LPGA’s Director of Tournament Business Affairs, manages the tour’s six tournaments in Asia. He offered a bold prediction.
“Probably within the next five years, you may see China taking over Korea as the dominant force in women’s golf,” Pyun said. “I can tell you that there are a number of players somewhere between 13 and 16 today that can compete in three to five years at the highest level.”
The addition of men’s and women’s golf in the next Summer Olympics should speed the process, Pyun said. In the past, China has made quantum leaps in sports from gymnastics to diving in order to excel on the Olympic world stage.
Shanshan Feng offered a more cautious outlook about the future of competitive golf in her country.
“I think it’s getting more and more popular, for sure,” she said. “We still can’t compare golf with tennis or diving, but I would say now that because golf is in the Olympics in 2016, and if somebody from China can do well in the Olympics, then I’m pretty sure golf will be one of the biggest sports in China.”
Feng added that she wants to be that somebody.