Shanshan Feng makes history in rise to World No. 1

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Shanshan Feng makes history in rise to World No. 1

LPGA Tour

Shanshan Feng makes history in rise to World No. 1

NAPLES, Fla. – Shanshan Feng landed in Dallas on Monday and checked her phone.

“Oh my god, I’m really World No. 1,” she said to no one in particular.

Feng, who won on Sunday in China, had traveled alone back to the U.S. for this week’s LPGA season finale, the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, where Feng has a chance to win the CME Race to the Globe’s $1 million bonus as well as Player of the Year honors.

To celebrate during her layover, she popped into a TGI Friday’s at the airport and ordered a steak. Feng snapped a photo of her plate and sent it to her father. This was after all, an historic occasion. Feng is the first Chinese golfer – male or female – to ascend to No. 1.

In a way, Feng’s longtime swing instructor, Gary Gilchrist, saw this coming. At dinner on Tuesday night in Naples, Fla., Gilchrist reminded Feng of a conversation they had last February. Gilchrist had gathered four of his players together for a best-ball match. Former World No. 1 Yani Tseng joined Feng, major champ Paula Creamer and current No. 1 Lydia Ko at Isleworth for a friendly competition. Gilchrist said Feng had eight one-putts that day.

“She walked up to me and goes ‘I have a feeling this year I can be No. 1 in the world,” said Gilchrist, who first started working with a teenage Feng back in 2006.

Gilchrist has a rich history in junior golf, dating back to the mid-90’s when the South African helped develop IMG’s Leadbetter Golf Academy. From there he moved to the International Junior Golf Academy, where 2017 Ricoh Women’s British Open champion In-Kyung Kim came to train as well as Feng.

Gilchrist, 53, ultimately opened his own academy in 2009 in Clermont, Fla., where close to 50 juniors from around the world are enrolled. Feng liked Gilchrist’s system so much that she opened her own academy in China two years ago and followed his lead.

“I think the reason why I really like him is because … the way he teaches is like based on your own body condition, like your body type,” said Feng. “Like if I’m not a powerful hitter, then he won’t try to change me into a powerful hitter.”

She also appreciates the positive, encouraging way Gilchrist teaches. He’s a happy person, and Feng can relate.

These days there’s much for Gilchrist to smile about. At 53, he’s had three of his players occupy the No. 1 ranking in 2017. Ko came to Gilchrist at the start of 2017 already No. 1, and in the midst of changes to her caddie and equipment.

Ko has been winless this season. Gilchrist calls it a rebuilding season, and noted that the Kiwi’s work ethic, mental attitude and outlook has never waned.

Ariya Jutanugarn became the first Thai player to reach No. 1 on June 12. She was there for only two weeks before relinquishing the spot to So Yeon Ryu. Gilchrist said he believes Jutanugarn never imagined she could rise to such heights so quickly.

“She never was able to prepare for it,” said Gilchrist. “I think there was a shock there.”

Now it’s Feng who must learn to adjust to the weight of being the best in the world. Gilchrist said Feng has the highest golfing IQ of any of his players – by far. Still, it has taken 11 years together to get to this point.

“You have to be careful that you don’t raise your expectations where you can’t have fun anymore,” said Gilchrist.

Feng, a nine-time winner on the LPGA, once thought she’d play only 10 years on the LPGA and then call it quits. Only now she’s already in her 10th season, and it’s too good to walk away.

“I think if I can play the 2020 Olympics,” said Feng. “I’ve got a bronze medal in the pocket, so I should try to go for the gold, right?”

When Feng took up golf, not many of her friends knew much about the sport. Small-ball sports like ping pong and tennis are huge in China, but golf is often seen as an elitist game.

“Like I would tell them, like I would say that I finished like second in the national junior championship,” said Feng. “They will be like, ‘Oh, that’s super,’ but they don’t know actually what golf is. They don’t know I only had like three competitors in my group.”

Feng laughed, telling the press that last bit was a secret.

Back at TGI Friday’s, Feng scrolled through her Chinese Twitter and marveled at all the mentions she’d gotten about being No. 1. Exactly what kind of impact Feng’s time at the top has on golf in her native country depends largely on how long she stays there.

“She’s like Se Ri Pak, but Se Ri Pak took off and she hasn’t,” said Gilchrist. “But I think becoming No. 1, they have to take notice. This is huge.”

Gilchrist tells Feng she might not get the recognition she deserves as a pioneer in her sport until later in life. Feng, being a positive person, sees an upside to that: “I don’t really like people like chasing me in the streets, you know?”

She’d prefer to eat her steak in peace.

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