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Success begets success for women's golf

By Sun Xiaochen | China Daily | Updated: 2013-05-19 08:03

Success begets success for women's golf 

Feng Shanshan of China watches her second shot on the ninth hole during the second round of the Kingsmill Championship at Kingsmill Resort on May 3 in Williamsburg, Virginia. Feng won the LPGA Championship last June. Hunter Martin / Agence France-Presse 

Thanks in part to Feng Shanshan, women's golf is exploding in popularity in China, Sun Xiaochen reports.

Women's golf in China is about to get a whole lot better.

Inspired by the sport's Olympic inclusion in 2016 and local star Feng Shanshan's strong performance internationally, female golf has been enjoying a surge in interest from the media and unprecedented support from the government and sponsors in recent years.

It's paying off.

The Reignwood LPGA Classic will become the newest stop on the LPGA world Tour, taking place at Beijing's Reignwood Pine Valley from Oct 3 to 6.

It couldn't come at a better time.

"In this case, not only with Feng's success but with golf becoming an Olympic sport in 2016, I think we will see a lot of young players rising up. It's tremendously important for us to establish our brand in this part of the world," Jon Podany, chief marketing officer of the LPGA, told China Daily at the launch of the Reignwood tournament on Wednesday.

Feng, the current world No 8, became the first golfer from the Chinese mainland to win a major by capturing the LPGA Championship last June, and then was touted as the Li Na of golf, with an eye toward using her to promote golf as Li did for tennis after winning the 2011 French Open.

The 23-year-old, who also attended the ceremony, shrugged off the comparison, citing the gap between the two sports' popularity in China.

Still, she said she is prepared to shoulder the burden of inspiring the next generation.

"Being in the position of being China's No 1 player, I feel I am responsible for promoting the sport to get more people involved," Feng said. "I'd like to be the flagship figure, despite the pressure and distraction that come along with it."

Podany couldn't be happier to see a Chinese face emerging in the untapped market, much as Yao Ming did for the NBA.

"Any time you are the first ever to do something, that will bring attention," he said. "She was the first ever male or female (from China) to win a major in golf, so that's a big deal."

Feng joins other Asian stars like Chinese Taipei's five-time major winner Tseng Ya-ni and Korean world No 1 Park In-bee in drawing attention to the sport.

Among the top 20 in the LPGA world rankings, 11 are from Asia. Seven of the 29 events on the calendar are held in Asian countries.

The new Reignwood event will swing off an "Asian season" from Oct 3 to Nov 10, during which five consecutive events will be held in the region, with total prize money of $890 million.

"What is happening is when we have players who have success, their countries want to host the event," Podany said.

However, it's never easy to bid to host a premier event.

Given the sport's modest status and the poor facilities at most clubs, the LPGA Tour hadn't returned to China since its debut in Hainan province in 2008. Chinese players, who mainly play on the domestic tour - the CLPGA - couldn't earn world ranking points until the CLPGA was approved by the international system in March.

China's emphasis on Olympic sports and its improving performances earned it enough credits to eventually land the event after years of trying, said Galba Zheng, general manager of Reighwood Pine Valley.

"We've been trying hard to introduce more heavyweight events since 2008," Galba said. "It's finally paid off, thanks to the game's rising profile here."

Success begets success for women's golf 

Annika Sorenstam of Sweden signs autographs prior to starting her round at the inaugural Grand China Air LPGA in Haikou, on China's southern Hainan Island in October 2008. AFP 

Podany believes the Chinese will take pride in the event..

"The credibility of being an Olympic sport will get countries that maybe didn't put much focus on golf to put more focus on it because it's a medal sport now," he said. "So we really think it will raise the visibility of the sport in a big way, especially on the women's side."

The Chinese golf community is anticipating results come Olympic time, which might in turn improve the sport even more.

The Reignwood Group raised more than $16 million in 2009 to set up a foundation to develop Olympic golf, which has benefited hundreds of juniors with free practice facilities and coaching programs with the Chinese Golf Association.

The Reignwood tournament will provide direct entries for China's top 15 players, who would likely not qualify for overseas LPGA tournaments through rankings.

They will challenge the world's best at the four-day, $1.8 million event.


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