Shanshan Feng doesn’t bruise easily.
Emotionally, that is.
“Jenny Money,” as they call her in the LPGA ranks, can take a punch, so to speak. With golf so much more about losing than it is winning, it might be Feng’s greatest asset. As temperamentally even-keeled as she is good humored, Feng is built for the emotional rigors of tour life.
That’s what her longtime coach has come to admire about her.
“She is so mentally strong,” said Gary Gilchrist, who has taught Feng for 10 years, since she first came to his golf academy as a 17-year-old junior. “Absolutely, she’s one of the mentally strongest players in the game.”
Since claiming the Olympic bronze medal in August, Feng is also one of the hottest players in the game.
With a 4-under-par 67 Sunday, Feng won the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia at TPC Kuala Lumpur. At 17 under overall, she finished three shots ahead of Suzann Pettersen (66) and five ahead of Amy Yang (69). It’s the fifth LPGA title of her career and will vault her back among the top 10 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.
Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko made a hard run Sunday to get within two of the lead before falling back with a double bogey and bogey over the final four holes to finish tied for 12th. World No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn (72) tied for 43rd and No. 3 Brooke Henderson (70) tied for 63rd.
Feng has finished fourth or better in her last six worldwide starts, dating back to the Olympics.
That third-place finish in Rio de Janeiro gained Feng more acclaim in her China homeland than any victory has, including the LPGA Championship she won in 2012, which was the first major championship won by a Chinese man or woman.
“Shanshan is going to be the Se Ri Pak of China, for sure,” Gilchrist said.
Winning Olympic bronze elevated Feng from a niche sport standout in China to a star.
“Shanshan is a household name in China now,” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said.
Feng received a sport hero’s welcome upon returning from Rio.
“I always tell the media that I don't think I'm a pioneer,” Feng said. “I think I'm a guinea pig.
“Before me, there was nobody [from China] on the LPGA and actually experiencing tour life. So, I do think that I'm a guinea pig, but I'm kind of a successful guinea pig. At least I'm still alive.”
After winning the LPGA Championship, Feng said she could go out in public back in her home, Guangzhou, without being recognized. That’s changed with the Olympics.
“Before, golf was only on special channels, like Golf Channels, but during the Olympics, the golf event was showing on all the main channels in China,” Feng said. “So even though people didn't play golf, they were like, `Golf is on, and the Chinese player is competing, so why don't I just watch it.’ And, a lot of people said, `Oh, it's actually quite interesting.’ They knew nothing about golf, but after watching the Olympic Games, they started to feel interested in it. So, I'm pretty sure that it will bring more people into golf.”
While this has meant more pressure on Feng, it doesn’t surprise Gilchrist how she is handling it. He watched her make it through LPGA Q-School in her first try, caddying for her during second stage. He also saw how well she handled pressure within China when Taiwan’s Yani Tseng rose to power as world No. 1. There were nationalistic pressures on Feng to match Tseng.
“The hard part coming up was that Shanshan was always compared to Yani, with Yani going through that spell of winning so many events,” Gilchrist said. “I kept telling Shanshan, `You are about three years behind Yani, but you are going to catch up because of your consistency.’ Shanshan just kept plodding and persevering, and it’s made her one of the best in the world.”
Gilchrist also came to admire how Feng handled the disappointments the game dished out.
“Shanshan doesn’t allow herself to be pulled down,” Gilchrist said. “When she hits a poor shot, she’s unbelievable about letting it go and bouncing back. Also, if she has a bad tournament, she doesn’t hold on to it and allow it to take away her confidence. She really believes, `Next tournament, if I just hole a few more putts, stay patient, I can play well.’ She’s very consistent, and her consistency builds her confidence.”
When Gilchrist took Feng under his wing at the International Junior Golf Academy on Hilton Head Island, S.C., 10 years ago, she was the first Chinese junior he met who was playing golf. When she won the LPGA Championship, she was the only Chinese player in the LPGA ranks. Today, there are six, with a lot more on the way. Two years ago, China didn’t come close to qualifying for the UL International Crown team event. They were among the top eight countries making it this year.
“There are a bunch of girls from China training in Orlando now,” Gilchrist said. “There are so many more Chinese girls playing the game. Definitely, China is going to become one of the top five nations in the world in women’s golf. It has to happen.”
Gilchrist said Feng is a great “model” for young Chinese players because of the mental, emotional examples she sets.
“The culture there is about hitting millions and millions of balls,” Gilchrist said. “What I love about Shanshan is she shows you can balance your life and enjoy your life without killing yourself by hitting millions of balls. She’s totally about quality over quantity.”
Gilchrist said Feng rarely practices after a round.
“When she has a great performance on the course, she knows that’s the best mental medicine you can get,” Gilchrist said. “It’s no use being great on the range when you struggle on the course. She knows what she needs to do, and she keeps it very simple.”
Feng, with her “Jenny Money” persona, her popular “spotted cow” pants and good humor, also keeps the game fun.