Shanshan Feng hopes to inspire the next generation of Chinese golfers as she tees up on home soil in this week’s Buick Championship at Shanghai Qizhong Garden Golf Club, starting on Thursday.
China's world number five is only 25 but she has already won 12 individual professional titles since turning professional in 2007, including the LPGA Championship, a major title she won in 2012 and the Ladies European Tour’s 2014 season-ending OMEGA Dubai Ladies Masters.
There is still plenty to play for – including her first win of the 2015 season – but she relishes the opportunity to give back to golf.
“As far as the younger players, I think this is a great opportunity,” said Feng, a brand ambassador for the title sponsor, Buick. “When I was younger, I couldn’t imagine participating in this kind of event in these kind of situations at this level. It is a great chance for them to experience it and decide what they want to do next.
“This LET co-sanctioned event is a great chance to see friends from around the world and for the players on the China LPGA Tour. I do not think many of the players here will often have the chance to compete on this kind of stage, on these kind of big occasions. The event will definitely help the younger Chinese players to compete.”
The youngest player in the field of 108 competitors is 13-year-old Yuli Shi, who has received an invitation courtesy of the China Golf Association (CGA). She is the sister of rising star Yuting Shi, 17, a rookie professional on the China LPGA (CLPGA) who tied for eighth place in last year’s Sanya Ladies Open, co-sanctioned with the LET. The pair played together in the Pro-Am on Wednesday, when Yuli impressively almost matched her older sister for length off the tee.
With last year’s teenage Sanya Ladies Open winner Xiyu Lin and Xiamen Open champion Ssu-Chia Chen also in the field, the fruits of the CGA’s talent development programme targeting the 2016 Olympics are becoming ever clearer. At a press conference in Shanghai on Wednesday, Lin, who last year, at 18, became the youngest winner of the CLPGA’s order of merit, commented: “Obviously the Olympics is one of my objectives but it’s a long way to go and I need to keep my attention.”
Feng, who paved the way for the younger Chinese players to compete at an elite level, is opening up opportunities for children to enter the development pathway.
In partnership with her coach, she has put her name to the Gary Gilchrist Golf Academy / Shanshan Feng Junior Championship, an American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) tournament taking place this August in California. With the support of Buick, an open qualifying event will be played in China and she added: “I would like to thank Buick who have given me the chance to launch this event and also my coach in the States, Gary. I am looking forward to helping young players in China.”
With live television coverage from the Buick Championship reaching a potential global audience of over 400 million households and a format modelled on the US PGA Tour’s Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, whereby amateur golfers join the professionals after the cut on Friday evening, organisers hope to popularise the sport and increase participation.
The beautiful, 6430 yard/5879 metre, par 72 golf course, lined with pink azaleas, is certainly attractive and four-time LET champion Melissa Reid, 27, said: “The course is in immaculate condition and I expect the scores to be pretty low this week. You have a great advantage if you drive the ball well as there are a lot of long carries.”
She and last year’s LET order of merit winner Charley Hull, 19, are grouped with Feng for the first two rounds and Hull will be looking for her second LET title. She said: “I’ve started the season quite well and hopefully I can continue.”
Don’t rule out the more experienced competitors, such as China’s Yan-Hong Pan, 29, who won the CLPGA tournament last year when it was called the Buick Invitational. She said: “The event has become an LET event, which makes the competition even tougher, but I’m looking forward to it and hope to fare well.”
The Buick Championship curtain was raised on Wednesday with the symbolic hitting of exploding golf balls. Let’s see if the fireworks continue on the golf course as the players bid to raise the silver Buick Winged Goddess trophy.