NAPLES, Fla. – Shanshan Feng should have been the favorite to sweep the CME Group Tour Championship and the Race to the CME Globe this week.
It isn’t just the fact that she’s the hottest player in the women’s game and looking to win her third consecutive start.
Or that she won at Tiburon Golf Club three years ago.
Or even that she’s leading this season-ending championship after the first round.
It’s her colorful nickname.
Feng is, after all, “Jenny Money.”
That’s what her friends call her.
With the biggest payday in women’s golf up for grabs this week, Feng is the player to beat for 1.5 million reasons. That’s $1 million to the winner of the CME Globe and $500,000 to the winner of the Tour Championship.
Feng opened Thursday with a 6-under-par 66, a shot better than Charley Hull and So Yeon Ryu and two shots better than a pack of eight players that includes In Gee Chun, the two-time major championship winner, and Ha Na Jang, a three-time LPGA winner this year.
“Recently, I’ve been playing good,” Feng said. “I just want to keep up the good playing. That’s it.”
Feng, 27, won the Sime Darby Malaysia and the Toto Japan Classic in her last two starts. She hasn’t finished worse than a tie for tie for fourth in her last seven starts, dating back to her bronze medal performance in the Olympics.
What’s the big difference in Feng’s game of late?
Swing coach Gary Gilchrist said it’s the fact that she changed her mindset at summer’s start. Gilchrist said with a wave of new talent hitting the tour hard last year, Feng lost a little bit of her confidence struggling to get on to leaderboards. She started to focus on all the talent around her instead of the talent inside her.
“We talked about it, and she said she started thinking, `I can finish top 10 this week, but I’m never going to win,’” Gilchrist said. “She said `These young girls are hitting it so long, they are so aggressive and their short games are so good, they’re always playing to win.’
“Shanshan realized, `If I don’t start thinking like them, I’m never going to win again.’”
Feng has long been one of the best ball strikers on tour, but she isn’t very long off the tee.
Gilchrist said Feng’s longtime caddie, Mercer Leftwich, began noticing a change in Feng’s approach last year.
“Mercer never used to hear her say things like, `This hole is so difficult,’ or `This is really a tough shot,’” Gilchrist said. “And so instead of going at pins, he saw her start playing more conservatively. She started playing away from flags.”
At summer’s start, Feng saw the light. She started attacking again. It paid off in Rio de Janeiro.
Feng gained more acclaim in her China homeland with her third-place finish at the Olympics than she did becoming the first Chinese player to win a major championship. She got a hero’s welcome home from Rio at the airport in Guangzhou.
“It was great for Shanshan,” Gilchrist said. “I see a lot of confidence in her now. I see her happy and excited about her game.”
Gilchrist said Feng has said more than once that she was going to play 10 years and retire, which would give her about two more years to play, but . . .
“I think she probably wants to go back to the Olympics again in four years,” Gilchrist said.
With the CME Group Tour Championship and CME Globe up for grabs this week, “Jenny Money” is eying some nice prizes to add to her bronze medal this week.