Implications of Feng's bronze medal in golf may be far-reaching

Prior to the Olympics, Chinese golfer Shanshan Feng knew what kind of a stage she and her sport were stepping onto in Rio. Will her bronze-medal showing Saturday help change things in her home country around her sport? Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Of the six total medals handed out in golf's return to the Olympics during the past fortnight, the most significant might have been the bronze awarded in the women's Olympic golf tournament on Saturday.

Nothing against Inbee Park (women's gold, South Korea), Lydia Ko (women's silver, New Zealand), Justin Rose (men's gold, Great Britain), Henrik Stenson (men's silver, Sweden) and Matt Kuchar (men's bronze, USA), but they all come from mostly fully matured golfing nations.

That's not the case with women's bronze medalist Shanshan Feng, who hails from China.

Coming into the week, Feng knew the stakes were high for golf in her homeland.

"If anybody [of the four Chinese players in the Olympic tournaments] can have a good result, maybe a medal, it's going to really change everything about golf in China," she said Saturday after shooting a final-round 69. "And of course, I mean, I made it, so that made me even more happy about it."

Of China's 1.4 billion people, turning just 1 percent into golfers would bring 14 million more people into the game. At 2 percent, well, you get the picture.

Feng isn't a new name in women's golf by any means. The 27-year-old from Guangzhou has four LPGA Tour victories, including a major title at the 2012 Wegman's LPGA Championship. She has finished inside the top six in the other four women's majors and won the Ladies European Tour's order of merit in 2015.

None of those victories will resonate in a nascent golfing country like China the way an Olympic medal will, though.

"Even people [in China] that they don't play golf, they actually get to see us and they get to actually see how great the Chinese players are," Feng said. "Of course, I make sure that I brought out my A-game and I smile all the time, whenever if I missed a putt or making a putt. I was like, oh, people back in China are watching, so I need to make sure that I look nicely."

Feng credited part of her performance on the course in Rio to how she handled herself, knowing the attention golf would get back home. She said normally in China, golf is only on golf channels. These past two weeks, though, since it's part of the Olympics, she knew it would be on all over the country.

Other Chinese players had made names for themselves on the world stage, but Feng's medal should stand out among many golfing accomplishments.

China's Hao-tong Li won the Volvo China Open on the European Tour in May at age 20, but that doesn't likely resonate with the sporting public, or more importantly with Chinese government officials who could support golf with funding, like an Olympic medal does.

Guan Tianlang, who is also from Guangzhou and who Feng said played on the same junior teams as her although she's several years older, competed in the 2013 Masters after winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship run by Augusta National. He made the cut at arguably the most famous golf tournament in the world, but it didn't change the direction of the sport in the world's most populous nation.

With the question about golf's future in the Olympics beyond Tokyo in 2020 a popular topic inside the game, having China earn a medal will certainly help make the case for increased participation in a country that could be a boon to golf's popularity around the globe.

Will Feng's bronze medal turn kids in China on to golf like Se Ri Pak's 1998 U.S. Women's Open victory did for South Korean children? Maybe not.

Yet even if the effects of Feng's performance aren't noticeable for years to come, the women's golf bronze medalist will be one of the best examples for keeping golf in the Summer Games beyond Tokyo.