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Feng Shanshan watches her tee shot on the second hole during the final round of the LPGA Championship at Locust Hill Country Club in New York on June 10. Scott Halleran / AFP
A new course in Pudong New Area in Shanghai is gaining fame for its use of water features that offer a fresh challenge for golfers. Xu Wanglin / CFP
Feng's LPGA triumph will inspire women to tee up for success, reports Chen Xiangfeng in Beijing.
No pain, no gain. This time, that old sporting adage is being applied to women's golf.
In a bid to emulate the success of Yao Ming in basketball, Li Na in tennis and Ding Junhui in snooker, China's golfing authorities have for years been seeking a female Tiger Woods to boost the development of the sport ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and expand the country's presence on the world's major platforms.
An increasing number of women's tours are organized every year in China, extra money is being invested at the grassroots level and more kids are being sent abroad to train and compete.
Those moves appear to have paid off after 22-year-old Feng Shanshan, a native of Guangdong province who began playing the sport 12 years ago, hit the headlines by becoming the first golfer from the Chinese mainland to win a major title by capturing the LPGA Championship.
Now, people have a reason to expect Feng, who arrived in the United States as a teenager before joining the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 2008, to keep progressing and make an impact similar to that of Yao, Li and Ding in their chosen fields.
"This victory can never have the same effect as that made by Li Na in the French Open last year, but it's a huge step forward for women's golf in China," Feng said. "I hope this win will help people understand more about golf in China."
Feng's breakthrough will undoubtedly inspire youngsters who are training and competing to realize their dreams. "Golf started late in China and we are still short of pro golfers," said Ye Liying, who became the first woman from the Chinese mainland to play in the US LPGA tour in 2005 and who currently plays on the Japanese LPGA tour. "It will inspire more people to get involved with the sport."
It's probably a little too early to say that Feng's victory will have the same enormous impact on Chinese golf that Pak Se-ri had in South Korea after she won two majors in 1998. Pak's victories inspired South Korean women to advance in the sport and the country is now a dominant force in the global game.
However, if Feng continues her impressive streak in the LPGA and major tournaments, women's golf in China will definitely have a brighter future, according to people within the sport. "I think Feng will raise the profile of Chinese golf, especially women's golf, just as Li Na did with tennis," said Li Hong, manager of the Chinese LPGA Tour, which was established in 2009. "Our younger generation now has a good example to follow. I hope more Chinese will grow up in the CLPGA and fight to achieve in the US LPGA and other major events."
Li said Feng's success will attract extra attention to the sport's prospects in the 2016 Olympics when the game is scheduled to be readmitted, not having featured since St. Louis in 1904, as well as China's own professional CLPGA tour.
Olympics boosts golf
Inclusion in the Olympics has given the sport a shot in the arm in China, a country well known for the state-support system that helps to develop top-level talent. "Golf is a sport that demands technique more than athleticism. It's a sport that's quite suitable for the Chinese," said Zhang Xiaoning, secretary-general of the Chinese Golf Association. "I'm sure as long as golf is developed under the state-support system it will produce some of the world's best players - just as in table tennis and badminton."
If that's the case, the world is unlikely to be surprised if a Chinese golfer, most likely a woman, stands on the podium at the 2016 Olympics. "The development of Olympic and non-Olympic sports in China is unbalanced. Golf has been restricted to a small group of people," said Zhang. "But things will change. History shows that China is able to lift an Olympic sport from nowhere to the top level once it is included in the state-support system."
China has established national teams and has increased investment in both the professional and amateur-level tours. Those efforts paid off at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, where the women's national team won a silver medal, its best result in the history of the event.
"We have focused on the women's tour because Chinese women have a greater chance of achieving breakthroughs on the international stage," said Zhang. "The women's tour is also becoming more popular since the news that golf will be reintroduced to the Olympics."
The efforts to develop golf have also focused on the amateur level. The China Amateur Golf Futures Tour was established in 2009 and provides hundreds of promising junior players with the opportunity to play at a competitive level. The tour is a major part of the CGA's efforts to improve standards and serves as a significant platform for players to advance through the national amateur and professional levels.
Although the country hosts elite tournaments such as the Volvo China Open, the World Cup and the HSBC Championship, Zhang said China is not content to simply showcase eye-catching events. "We do not want to stand aside and see them (the world's top players) play," said Zhang. "We want to have our own tours and our own stars."
Apart from the training, education in language and culture is also important so that young players will settle into overseas competitions with ease. Zhang Lianwei, a pioneer of Chinese golf who has witnessed the sport's ups and downs in recent decades, knows the significance of linguistic and cultural competence better than most people. "When I started playing 20 years ago, I underwent so many difficulties. Because of the language and cultural differences, I struggled for a long time on overseas golf tours. I suffered a lot and wasted a lot of time before I became accustomed to the circumstances," said Zhang, who was the first golfer from the Chinese mainland to achieve a victory on the European Tour in 2003, and the following year was the first to compete in the Masters Tournament, one of the four major championships.
To better educate and train the younger generation, the 47-year-old is now more devoted to work away from the course and a grassroots event now bears his name, the Zhang Lian Wei Cup junior invitational.
"World-class courses have opened and star-studded events are coming to China, helping to raise the sport's popularity and profile. But for golf's future in China, we need to prioritize training and education for kids," said Zhang. "I remember that Feng won the A Group in the 2003 Zhang Lian Wei Cup junior invitational and now she is the champion of a major."
Zhang is pleased to see that golf academies have opened in China and that more professional methods have been adopted from the US golf system. "We must provide our kids with more chances to learn languages, cultures and advanced technologies. I hope they do not waste as much time as I did 20 years ago."
Zhang's words were echoed by the current women's world No 1 and four-time major winner Tseng Ya-ni from Chinese Taipei, who has also trained and competed in the US and has a good command of English. "You can see that golfers are usually very good friends. Look at the superstars, they have excellent overall abilities - good language and communication skills and cultural knowledge," she said.
In this regard, Feng is fortunate in more than just a sporting sense. The language barrier does not exist for her. She speaks excellent English and has a witty sense of humor, even in her second tongue. Chinese golf fans will be hoping that over time she will use all her skills to provide the country with yet another sporting idol.
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(China Daily 06/20/2012 page1)