Shanshan Feng enjoys big payday
NAPLES, Fla. -- Several players shooting terrific scores Saturday set up what projected to be an exciting, star-studded final day of the LPGA season.
But the women's tour finished 2013 without the hoped-for fireworks Sunday. However, there was a celebratory cannon -- yes, a real one -- that was lit by winner Shanshan Feng when the CME Group Titleholders tournament ended.
There was no American champ, even though, when Sunday started, big-name U.S. players such as Stacy Lewis, Natalie Gulbis, Lexi Thompson, Michelle Wie and Cristie Kerr were in the lead or within striking distance.
By late afternoon, though, they were mostly slogging through uninspiring rounds, lamenting chances lost to put a great ending on the year. Instead, the one who took home the biggest winner's check of the LPGA season -- $700,000 -- was China's Feng.
And even she said, "I missed so many birdie chances," after a 6-under 66 gave her the victory at 15-under 273.
It was that kind of day at a Tiburon Golf Club course that seemed to get windier by the hour.
But Feng, who, in 2012, became the first player from mainland China to win an LPGA event, wasn't bothered by the gusts. Her ballstriking was exceptional for much of this tournament. In fact, she might have run away from the field Sunday if she'd rolled in a few more makeable birdie putts.
As it was, Feng had to wait at No. 18 for American Gerina Piller to finish to know if she'd won. Piller missed a 7-foot birdie putt, and Feng had her second victory of the 2013 season. Feng also won the LPGA's inaugural event in China in October, which was a huge emotional lift for her in her homeland.
"I think the support of the fans back in China was really, really important," Feng, 24, said of Guangzhou, China. "Because I didn't think I was that popular in China. But we were having an LPGA [event] in Beijing, and the last day we had more than 10,000 people watching, and they were so excited. So I do think that I'm not alone."
Feng, understandably, might sometimes feel alone, especially when playing events in the United States and hearing loud cheers for the American players. But she is such an outgoing, funny and personable player -- and her English is excellent -- that once U.S. fans get to know her, they can't help but cheer for her.
Still, on the 72nd hole, the crowd was pulling for Piller to send it to a playoff. She was seeking her first victory on the LPGA Tour. But second place is her best-ever finish, and she wasn't too disappointed with a 3-under round of 69 that left her one shot short.
"To sleep on the lead and come out and grind like I did," Piller said, "and give myself an opportunity to force a playoff, I'm pretty excited about that. And I'm done for the year; I'm happy to go home."
Piller will take back to Texas a check for $139,713. It's a big drop-off in the payday between first and everything else at this tournament.
Speaking of drop-offs, someone should have warned third-round co-leader Gulbis about that cliff she went over on the course Sunday. Well, not literally, but her game certainly took a precipitous tumble. She was tied atop the leaderboard with Piller and Thailand's Pornanong Phatlum at 11-under to start Sunday's round.
Gulbis finished tied for 29th after a 10-over 82 -- a ghastly 17 strokes worse than the 65 she shot Saturday.
Gulbis has won only once on tour, and that was back in 2007. So, realistically, she wasn't expected to put together another top-notch round and win here.
But Lewis, who shot 63 on Saturday, did have those expectations.
However, Lewis shot 1-under 71 and finished tied for sixth. Kerr's 69 also left her in a tie for sixth. Wie's even-par 72 put her into a tie for 11th place. The 18-year-old Thompson, who won last week on tour, closed with a weary-looking 76 and fell to a tie for 16th.
"I just couldn't get any birdies," said the 24-year-old Wie, whose best finish in 2013 was a tie for third. "I didn't give myself any opportunities today. I just couldn't get near the hole.
"[But] I still feel a lot more confident at the end of this year than I did at the end of last year. I feel like I've been in contention and am getting more used to that."
Few players have been in contention this year more than Lewis, who secured the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average (69.484) and recorded her tour-leading 19th top-10 finish.
"I kind of didn't really realize what it was for most of the year," Lewis said of her stroke average. "The last few months, I watched it and kept posting low numbers. Just to be a part of history is so cool."
Last year, Lewis became the first American since Beth Daniel to win the LPGA's player of the year award. This year, Lewis did the same in winning the Vare trophy. Daniel accomplished both those things in 1994.
Two other finishes of note Sunday were those of world No. 1 Inbee Park, who shot 4-under 68 and ended up in fifth place, and 16-year-old Lydia Ko, whose 70 put her in a tie for 21st. Ko turned pro for this event, and her first paycheck was for $16,063. Asked if she planned to buy herself anything, Ko said she'd like a new camera.
"I think with better results, the better equipment and cameras I can get, right?" she said.
As for Feng, she has a much bigger deposit to make into her bank account, so she was quite thrilled Sunday. But she also has shown a pleasant demeanor even when her results haven't been as good.
"I do think that tour life is not only about the tour. It's also life," Feng said. "I need to enjoy my tour life, and I'm always a happy person, so it doesn't really matter how I'm doing [on the course]. I still want to be happy.
"Usually, if I set goals for the tournaments, I would set a goal that I feel comfortable with. Like this week, I was actually thinking top 10."
It turned out Feng really underestimated herself.