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

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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.