China's Shanshan Feng does things her way

Inspiring Greatness: Shanshan Feng (3:28)

The Chinese golfer is always unapologetically herself. (3:28)

LESS THAN ONE WEEK after winning a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Shanshan Feng stood in the first row at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. She was waiting to shake hands with Xi Jinping, president of the People's Republic of China. Standing perfectly upright and wearing a bright yellow blazer, Feng anxiously watched as he edged closer and closer. Surrounded by hundreds of Chinese Olympians -- also clad in yellow jackets, with some in red -- Feng knew she had to do something to stand out.

Typically, the athletes would reach out and simply shake the president's hand. Maybe nod their head and say a quick thank-you, keeping the chatter to a minimum. But Feng, 27, didn't want to be like everyone else. She had just won China's first Olympic medal in golf, which returned to the Games after a 112-year absence. This was a big deal for Feng -- and for her country.

As President Xi moved down the first row, the suspense built for Feng. The president finally reached her. He extended his hand toward Feng. She paused for a second and extended her hand to meet his. Then, out of nowhere, Feng found herself speaking. "President, you're so handsome," she said with enthusiasm. President Xi paused for a second, shocked. Then he smiled at Feng and reached out his hand for second handshake. The woman to Feng's left laughed and started clapping. The man behind her thrust his hand by Feng's shoulder, in hopes of receiving a handshake from the president.

In this moment, Feng stood out. And people noticed. This was her moment. This was China's moment. This was golf's moment. She embraced and owned it.

SINCE SHE WAS a teenager, Feng has been unapologetically herself -- and it has paid off. Today, at No. 6 on the Rolex Rankings -- her best ranking since turning pro -- Feng continues to climb the ladder, with more than $8 million in earnings on tour, seven LPGA victories and an Olympic bronze medal.

But she hasn't forgotten how she got there. An agent discovered her when she was a high-schooler, at a tournament in China, and shortly after she met legendary coach Gary Gilchrist. Impressed by her play, he offered Feng a full scholarship in late 2007 to attend his junior golf academy in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The 17-year-old accepted. Leaving her homeland and her family behind, Feng -- without knowing much English -- moved to the U.S. with the hopes of becoming a professional golfer. In only six months, she decided to try to qualify for the LPGA.

"I was taken aback when she said she wanted to go to Q-school [LPGA qualifying school]," says Gilchrist, who also coaches LPGA players Ariya Jutanugarn (ranked No. 2) and Lydia Ko (No. 4 ). "I remember saying to her, 'Wow, that's a huge jump and leap. Are you sure you want to do this?' But ultimately I ended up supporting her because I knew she had what it takes to make it."

Feng knew this was a huge decision, but she came to the U.S. to compete at a higher level, and what's higher than the LPGA? "I called my parents and said, 'I am 18 now, and I am going to try to qualify. Even if I don't qualify, I will know how much I need to improve,'" Feng says.

Although Feng's parents were supportive, she says there were very few people who actually thought she could qualify -- including herself. "I never thought I was going to make it past Q-school, to be honest," says Feng, who turns 28 years old in August. "But I wanted to do it anyway, because why not. What do I have to lose?"

By December 2008, Feng had made it to Daytona Beach, Florida, to compete in the final stage of Q-school. After a few days of playing, she and three other women remained tied at 16th -- with the top 20 qualifying. "I was right on the cut," Feng says. "I kind of knew that I had a chance, but couldn't imagine if I could actually capture the tour card."

Later that week, Feng became the first golfer from mainland China to earn her LPGA Tour card. "There were no other Chinese players, so it was a huge surprise that I made it on my first try," Feng says. "Everyone from China was surprised -- but really happy for me."

During her first year in the U.S., Feng says she started to do things her way. "I was on my own. My parents stayed in China; they couldn't afford to come here," says Feng, who now lives in Los Angeles. "So I learned to be on my own and became very independent."

And this newfound independence came with responsibility. Feng was transitioning into adulthood, taking ownership of her life and professional career. She was maturing and growing up. Feng felt that shift during a trip home to Guangzhou, a city northwest of Hong Kong, after her first two seasons in the LPGA. It was the offseason, and Feng found herself at the driving range with her father, Xiong Feng, watching her every move.

On the range that day, Feng practiced with a purpose. After missing the cut nine times in her second season, she struggled with finding her rhythm; something was off -- and she just needed to reset her focus. But every five minutes, her father would criticize her. First, it was, "Oh, I think your club head is too over the top." Five minutes later, it was, "Oh, I think your ball position is wrong."

Feng took a step back from the practice area and took a deep breath. "Dad, here's the deal: You don't know what Gary is coaching me," Feng remembers saying. "You don't know what is hurting me and what is helping me. I'll give you two options. One is that you can go to Gary's academy and learn how to coach with him and teach me after you've learned from him. Or, second, you can just step away and just be the dad."

Her father chose the second option. "I'll just watch as a dad," he said then. "Not a coach, not a caddie, not anything else but a dad."

And in that moment, Feng realized she was really in charge of her destiny.

SITTING IN THE CLUBHOUSE at Blythefield Country Club outside Grand Rapids, Michigan, Feng sips on a bottled water and gently pats the back of her hand across her forehead to wipe away drips of sweat. It's just before noon in the middle of June -- and the humidity outside begins to creep in. Feng has finished her morning practice and now just wants to relax. It's a Tuesday, and she knows she has a busy week ahead of her with a pro-am round Wednesday and then the Meijer LPGA Classic starting Thursday.

Staring out the windows along the borders of the clubhouse, Feng admires the handful of tour players packed on the practice putting green. Coaches hover over women in pink skirts and colorful hats, balls lined up in perfect order. Like puzzle pieces, the women know how to dance around each other to play each practice hole.

Feng talks about her own practice philosophy: "A lot of people think it's more important to practice for long hours a day, but I think it's better to focus on the quality. As long as I get confidence from the practice and I believe in myself and I learn something every day, then I am good."

This has been Feng's philosophy for as long as she can remember. At the age of 10, she started playing golf with her father, who worked for the Chinese sports bureau. Because of limited resources and a lack of reputable golf coaches, Feng's father worked with her every day. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Feng attended school, and then her father would shuttle her to the driving range. She would practice for two hours hitting golf balls off a mat. On the weekends, she traveled outside of the city to a local course to play practice rounds and work on her short game. It was her routine. And her routine was working.

Golf quickly became Feng's focus. Just a few years after picking up a club, Feng started winning major tournaments in China. In 2004, she won the China Junior Championship and China Junior Open. She went on to win the China Amateur three years in a row. And in 2006, Feng won the China Women's Amateur Open. She was unstoppable, and people started to take notice. "I had reached the highest peak in China for golf," Feng says.

But the idea of Feng relocating to the U.S. to pursue a professional career was uncharted territory. "Before me, there was nobody," she says. "The golf history in China is quite short compared to other countries. So we thought maybe the Chinese are just behind. I didn't feel like I had the skill set."

China has had a love-hate relationship with golf. In 1949, golf disappeared completely under Mao Zedong, who called it a "sport for millionaires." And since then it's experienced several ups and downs. Generally speaking, the Chinese government has associated the golf course with corruption, a place where unsavory deals are made and officials are bribed -- so over the years, government has placed a moratorium on the construction of golf courses. But developers continued to build illegal golf courses. As the Rio Olympics got underway and Feng was competing for her country, President Xi formed the largest task force in China's history to crack down on golf courses.

Because of this rocky history, the country lacks depth on the professional tour circuits. In addition, the sport is too expensive for many in China, and immediate resources are sparse, with fewer than 600 courses remaining in the entire country. Including Feng, today there are only four players from mainland China on the LPGA Tour, which has 530 members. There are 196 professional members on the China LPGA Tour -- and about 120 of those are Chinese. "Players on the CLPGA Tour all look up to [Shanshan] as their role model," says T.K. Pen, who founded the CLPGA in 2008. "Even players on the men's tour look up to her. They all want to see themselves playing on the bigger tours."

Over the past few years, Pen says it's been an uphill battle to turn female amateurs into professionals in China. But Feng's success has given women's golf a much-needed boost. "The Olympics happened during the worst crackdown [on golf] in the history of China. Shanshan's bronze medal was seen as a light of hope for everyone at a time when many people see the end altogether," Pen says. "I believe we have seen the bottom of Chinese golf. The number of golfers will rise again."

Building on the momentum surrounding her success in Rio last year, Feng opened up her first junior golf academy in Guangzhou in June, the Shanshan Feng Golf Academy. Despite the distance and her full-time travel schedule during the season, she remains hands-on with the academy. Adopting Gilchrist's coaching style, Feng hired PGA professional Marty LaRoche to lead the academy when she cannot be there full time. The golf academy opened its doors with 10 students and a full-time staff. By September, the academy expects that number to rise to 20 full-time students. "The kids are grinding over here," LaRoche says. "They just want to be successful like her."

Says Feng: "I am seeing a bright future for junior golf. I really want to give back to all the Chinese people. So I found a way to do that by opening up the golf academy. After a few years on tour, I realized all the financial sacrifices that my parents made to allow me to play golf -- and I don't want other families to have to experience that."

It's the final day of the Meijer LPGA Classic in Grand Rapids. The leaderboard overflows, with more than 20 women on the cusp of taking the lead. There's no shortage of tension in the air. As gray clouds fill the sky, the top players settle into the first nine holes. Fans line up along the fairways and wedge themselves into crevices along the greens to catch a glimpse of Michelle Wie or Lexi Thompson. As every putt drops, the crowd roars. Scores continue to drop into double digits under par with each approaching hole.

Only five groups ahead of the leaders, Feng approaches the ninth green seesawing back and forth between 10-under and single digits. Struggling to find consistency on the greens, Feng doesn't show any signs of frustration. She simply looks at the crowd and smiles.

BUNDLED OFF TO the right of the green, husband and wife Frank and Jane Ollendorff peer over the crowd to watch Feng's missed attempt at a birdie putt. The putt nearly finds the bottom of the cup, missing by a few centimeters, and the crowd sighs. The Ollendorffs continue walking to the 10th hole. In the past five years, the Ollendorffs have followed Feng's career, becoming big fans. After watching Feng win the 2012 Wegmans LPGA Championship, the two dedicated their free time to traveling to various tournaments to watch Feng play.

"She's just incredible to watch. One of the happiest and friendliest players I've ever seen play," Jane Ollendorff says. "We've always been fans of women's golf, but nothing beats watching Shanshan play. She stands out."

After missing another birdie attempt on the par-3 14th hole, Feng's composure stays the same. She glances at the Ollendorffs and a handful of fans watching her play. Her emotions appear subdued. The crowd slowly follows Feng to the next hole. But fans walking on the adjacent hole catch a glimpse of Feng. "Moo, moo," one fan yells, pointing at Feng. The Ollendorffs look at the fans and note this is not unusual for Feng. Every tournament, she chooses to wear her signature cow outfit at least once. The sleeves of her black collared shirt sport a black and white cow pattern, and her long pants are nothing but cow print.

"This is what makes her stand out," Jane says. "She loves it, and she doesn't really care if others like it or not. At first, when she started wearing them, people didn't really understand it. But now I think fans are catching on to the fact that it's just her having fun on the course. It's her way of keeping things happy no matter what she's shooting."

In a way, the cow outfit has become a reflection of Feng's sense of self. Feng is known on the LPGA as Jenny Money -- -- a nickname she likes because it stands out -- and she refuses to blend in. "When I wear my cow pants, everyone knows it's Shanshan," Feng says. "No one else wears them. My pants are made just for me.

"I want to be remembered for the fun things and the enjoyment of my career."

After almost 10 years on tour, Feng's lighthearted attitude on the course is reflected in her scores. This season, Feng remains at the top of the leaderboard. She wants to set her sights on winning another major and competing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But even with these goals in mind, Feng remains steadfast in her long-standing approach to not put too much pressure on her game.

"To me, I don't let it affect me if I have a good round or bad round. Or if I win or lose. I try to just be happy and enjoy my time on tour," Feng says. "Golf is my career, but it's not my whole life."