Overlooked no more: Inside Feng's journey to No. 1

By Randall MellNovember 13, 2017, 6:13 pm

NAPLES, Fla. – Even Shanshan Feng’s trademark cow pants didn’t always do the trick.

Nor did her colorful nickname, “Jenny Money.”

Or the best sense of humor and quips in the women’s game.

Gary Gilchrist, Feng’s coach, marveled at how underestimated, overlooked and overshadowed she typically was coming into the game’s biggest events, even after winning a major championship and an Olympic medal.

But that’s what made late Sunday night so satisfying, when he saw her name officially ascend to Rolex world No. 1.

“What an amazing journey,” Gilchrist said. “Watching her go through the ups and downs, the pressures ... It’s just a huge accomplishment, especially coming from China, and the struggles of golf there.”

Feng, 28, will head to this week’s season-ending CME Group Tour Championship looking for her third consecutive victory. She wasn’t sure whether to believe she was actually going to go to No. 1 after winning the Blue Bay LPGA Saturday on Hainan Island in her native China.

Feng held her breath until seeing the Rolex rankings released on Sunday.

“It’s the longest day in my life, to wait for the updates of the world ranking,” Feng said. “When I finally see the Chinese flag on top of the ranking, I feel all the efforts over the past 18 years on golf was worth it.”

Feng is the first player from China to win a major championship, to win an Olympic medal in golf (bronze) and now to hold the world No. 1 ranking in golf.

“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.”

Gilchrist met Feng when she was 17, accepting her at the academy he ran on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. He remembers how she flew under the radar even back then.

“She was like a silent assassin,” Gilchrist said. “We would go to a tournament, and she would be so quiet, just doing her own thing. Nobody would even notice her, and then she would win by 12 shots.”

Gilchrist caddied for Feng at second stage of LPGA’s Q-School when she earned her tour card at 18. He watched her overcome so many obstacles coming from a golfing no-man’s land in China, where the sport wasn’t very popular, even frowned upon as being elitist. Golf was banned in the country until the 1980s.

“The hardest thing was seeing Shanshan get almost no recognition for what she was doing,” Gilchrist said. “It was unbelievable.”

Gilchrist said the toughest challenge Feng faced trying to prove herself early on in China was playing in the shadow of Taiwan’s Yani Tseng, a rival and contemporary who rose to No. 1 by winning in bunches. Taiwan’s complicated relationship with China added to the pressure Feng faced.

“People wanted to compare Shanshan to Yani,” Gilchrist said. “The team managing her at the time wanted to know why she wasn’t playing as well as Yani. They started doubting Shanshan and me.

“Struggling through that, braving through that, Shanshan became mentally stronger and stronger. She is one of the mentally strongest players in the game.”

For Feng, becoming world No. 1 is a feat larger than personal success. Her father, Xiong, is a leader in the Chinese Golf Association in their Guangzhou hometown. Shanshan opened her own golf academy there in May with Gilchrist as a consultant. She is devoted to growing the game.

“As an Olympic sport now, and with Shanshan going to world No. 1, it should propel golf in China to a whole new level,” Gilchrist said. “I was impressed by the level of play I saw in the national games this year.”

Gilchrist captained the Guangdong Province team to a silver medal in the Chinese National Games in September. He hosts a contingent of 16 players from the province every year at his Florida academy.

While China faces more obstacles than South Korea did becoming a women’s golf power, Gilchrist envisions a day when China becomes a force in the sport.

“Shanshan is going to be the Se Ri Pak of China, for sure,” Gilchrist said.

When Feng won the LPGA Championship in 2012, there was just one other Chinese player among the top 400 in the Rolex world rankings. Today, there are nine.

Three years ago, China didn’t come close to qualifying for the UL International Crown. Last year, they were among the top eight nations making it the biennial international team event.

“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.”

Jing Yan was 16 when she saw Feng make China’s CCTV nightly news. It was how Yan learned Feng won the LPGA Championship.

“Everyone watches the nightly news show,” Yan said. “TV ratings have to be massive. For a golfer to make the nightly news, for the masses to see that, it was big.”

Today, Feng and Yan are one of four Chinese members of the LPGA.

“Golf still has a long way to go in China,” said Yan Ming, Jin’s father. “The country is so big, and you have so many people who still don’t even know what golf is, but Shanshan is making an impact.”

As Rolex world No. 1, Feng finally won’t be so underestimated, overlooked and overshadowed.

Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 22, 2017, 9:33 pm

Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.

Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.

"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"

The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.

Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.

"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."

Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.

"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.

"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.

"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told GolfChannel.com Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday: 

"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when GolfChannel.com sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.


Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery


A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.