Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tim Maitland: Shanshan a Shootout Short of Making History for China

Singapore 27th February 2012

Tim Maitland

China’s Feng Shanshan came within a whisker of creating a slice of history for her country at the HSBC Women’s Champions in February when she was beaten in a four-way play-off, on the same small patch of land that has witnessed two of the greatest moments for the Mainland since golf was reintroduced there 27 years ago.
In 2003 the godfather of the men’s game in China, Zhang Lianwei, became the first player from the People’s Republic to win a European Tour-sanctioned event when he snatched the Singapore Masters from under Ernie Els’s nose at the Laguna National Golf & Country Club. Four years later, in 2007, in the same event at the same course, the current Chinese number one Liang Wenchong claimed his first and only European Tour win and went on to become the first Mainland player to win the Asian Tour Order of Merit as a result.
Just a driver and wedge away from Laguna National, the other side of Junction Two of the Lion City’s East Coast Parkway, 22-year old Feng came within a whisker of becoming the first player from her country to beat a truly world-class field.
“I was pretty close, but I tried my best,” said the girl from Guangdong province, who had to settle for second place after the dramatic finale, which included a 90-minute thunderstorm delay for the final group, saw Shanshan eliminated after the first hole of the shootout won by America’s Angela Stanford. Despite the defeat, she still had the consolation of back-to-back top-five finishes on the LPGA’s Spring Swing in Asia having come in fifth at the Honda LPGA Thailand the week before.
“I wasn’t thinking of winning. I was just focusing shot by shot: if I win then I win, but if I don’t it’s OK because I know I have the ability to win. Overall, I think I did pretty well. Ten under on this course is my best score and all four days were under par. I was pretty consistent, even though my ball striking wasn’t that great.”

Feng matched her career-best results since she surprised the golfing public and media in China by winning her LPGA Tour card at the 2007 Q School as an 18-year-old amateur; she was also runner-up at the 2011 Mizuno Classic in Japan and at the 2008 State Farm Classic. While she may not have been thinking too much about winning in Singapore, in the sponsor’s Hexagon Suite overlooking the 18th green, one person was.
“I know as a sponsor we’re neutral and I’m as delighted as anyone for Angela, but I couldn’t help thinking of the enormous impact Shanshan winning her first LPGA event would have had on the girls, and boys, on the HSBC China Junior Golf Program,” said HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship Giles Morgan, who in 2009 made the unusual move of announcing there would have been a sponsor’s invite to the HSBC Women’s Champions had Shanshan needed it, because of the way her arrival on the LPGA had inspired the children in China and particularly the elite players on the seven-event HSBC National Junior Championship.
“We made good on our word in 2010 when Shanshan needed a helping hand into our tournament after her sophomore season, because seeing her competing regularly and getting so close to victory in 2008 truly did energise the girls back in China. She didn’t win this time, but surely, the way she’s playing it can’t be long before she does,” Morgan added.
Feng finished 2011 in the best form of her career, winning twice on the JLPGA–at the Y90 million (around US$1.1 million) Meiji Cup in Hokkaido in August and the Y70 million (around US$860,000) Miyagi TV Cup Dunlop Ladies Open in Miyagi prefecture in September–and in between finishing runner-up at one of the country’s Majors, the Japan LPGA Championship Konica Minolta Cup, before doing the same at the co-sanctioned Mizuno Classic in November after a play-off with Momoko Ueda.
The idea that a win on the world stage can’t be far away is backed up by Shanshan’s belief that her game has taken a further step forward since then.
“My putting and short game is a lot better than last year and that’s what I think the difference is. I think I gained a lot of confidence after I won in Japan. It helped me to relax. I used to be a little rushed when I was in contention and now I don’t even feel nervous,” she said.
“I feel good. Especially after two top fives in a row in my first two tournaments I’m pretty confident: I’m ready.”

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