College Women

Longshot Vandy's Feng fights through Tulsa wind

Vanderbilt's Simin Feng during Tuesday's first round of the NCAA Division I Women's Championship in Tulsa, Okla.
Vanderbilt's Simin Feng during Tuesday's first round of the NCAA Division I Women's Championship in Tulsa, Okla. ( Tracy Wilcox )

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

TULSA, Okla. – 103. It’s bad enough on a weather report but a scorecard, well, that’s practically unbearable. The day Simin Feng posted a 103 at the 2010 Thunderbird International Junior, she lost five balls in the desert on one hole.

“We helped her to find the ball everywhere,” said her father, Liguang Feng.

Feng had no excuse to quit. She was neither injured nor ill. She was simply horrendous off the tee. The misses were both big and unpredictable.

To her credit, Feng carried on, posting a score that seems unimaginable for an AJGA All-American who had won the Annika Invitational the year prior. In 2011, Feng shot 93 at the Ping Invitational in Stillwater, Okla. There were highlights, but her game could explode at any moment.

During that two-year slump, Feng told her father many times throughout a round that this was her final round of golf, only to wake up the next morning and do it all over again.

It takes a great deal of inner strength to fight back from the abyss. The Vanderbilt freshman entered this week’s NCAA Division I Women’s Championship as one of the most talented in the field, an SEC champion and a leader on a surprisingly strong team.

“Not many people have been through what I’ve been through,” said Feng, who is ranked 13th by Golfweek.

The winds in Tulsa on opening day were cruel, and Feng spent much of the round fighting from the trees. She shot 5-over 75 Tuesday but was spotted singing down the fairway with her pushcart, her left hand keeping the beat as she moved her shoulders ever so slightly.

For Feng, even the tough days are now fun.

Feng’s mother, Tao Yuan, was a professional handball player back in China, as were her uncle and grandfather. Her grandmother played professional basketball.

Growing up in Beijing she tried tennis, ballet, dancing and badminton. She was introduced to golf at age 9 and, one year later, the family packed up and moved to Florida to pursue the dream of professional golf.

Imagine then the pressure and frustration Feng must have felt when her game disappeared. The family phoned David Leadbetter, whom she had met playing at junior events alongside the renowned instructor’s daughter, Hally.

“The driver was horrendous,” said Leadbetter of their initial consult. “She was hitting these low hooks and couldn’t get it airborne.”

Leadbetter introduced Feng to something he calls the “A Swing,” which he’s keeping close to the vest as the concept is coming out in a new book – his first in 10 years – next spring. The “A” stands for “alternative” and Leadbetter said Feng is a model for the movement.

“In Simin’s case, it sort of changed her life,” he said.

Greg Allen might not have recruited Feng if not for Leadbetter’s assurances that her game was on the rise. Feng won a China LPGA event as well as the 2012 AJGA Girls Championship and Allen began to feel better and better about his offer.

Twice last fall, Feng traveled back to China to compete in events. She admits she’d move back in a flash if not for golf. She misses the community that comes with living in an apartment, childhood friends and the rest of her family.

Allen worried her grades might suffer missing so much school, but Feng finished last semester with a 3.4 GPA. Her work ethic is unquestionably strong, but there’s also a playfulness about Feng that endears her to teammates.

She is pleased to have been a part of something special at Vanderbilt. The Commodores snapped a six-year winless streak this spring, collecting a total of four team trophies. They were longshots this week at Tulsa Country Club and the ’Dores find themselves 15 strokes behind Oklahoma after the first round.

Feng will evaluate her next step at the conclusion of this week’s championship. She lives with her family at Isleworth in Windermere, Fla., when not in school and practices alongside Na Yeon Choi and Bubba Watson. When Feng played in China last October at the Reignwood LPGA Classic in Beijing, she felt comfortable.

“The LPGA is not so much a mystery for me,” said Feng.

The dream, at once lost in the desert, is now within grasp.