China's Feng keeps on inspiring the Shanshans of the world

Inspiring Greatness: Shanshan Feng (3:28)

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

When Feng Shanshan became the first golfer from mainland China to earn her LPGA Tour card in 2008, she set a goal for herself: spend the next 10 years on tour and then retire from professional golf.

During the 2017 season, Feng found herself fully embracing what she thought would be her "last year on tour." However, things took a turn in November when Feng started to win. Not just one tournament, but two tournaments, back-to-back. After claiming victory at the TOTO Japan Classic and then the Blue Bay LPGA the following week, Feng quickly climbed the ranks and became the first player from China, male or female, to hold the No.1 spot in the world.

Then, Feng had a decision to make: put away her clubs and finish on a high note, or continue to compete and hold on to the No.1 rank for as long as possible?

"If I stuck to my plan, then I would have retired." Feng, 28, told ESPN.com.

"But last year, I did so great, especially at the end of the year with becoming No. 1. I wasn't going to quit. I'm just trying to get better and better."

It's no surprise the Chinese golf pioneer wanted to embark on unchartered territory in this No. 1 spot. Her entire career has been made up of firsts: first Chinese player to earn a Tour card (on her first attempt at Qualifying School); first Chinese player to win a major tournament; first Chinese player to compete for her country in the Olympics and win a medal; and first Chinese player to hold the No.1 ranking. Now, adding one more first to her career, Feng is the first Chinese woman to be nominated for an ESPY in the category of "Best Female Golfer," for the 2018 ESPYS, where individuals and teams will be recognized for their athletic achievements.

Since the first ESPYS, in 1993, there have been only two other Chinese-born players nominated. With her nomination alone, Feng joins an elite group of athletes in ESPYS history with basketball sensation Yao Ming (nominated in 2003 for "Best Breakthrough Athlete") and tennis star Li Na (nominated in 2011 for "Best Breakthrough Athlete" and "Best Female Tennis Player," and again 2014 for the latter).

For Feng, it's more than just an honor to follow in the footsteps of these athletes, especially Li. It's something Feng has wanted to do since she won the LPGA Championship in 2012. And after a standout 2017 season, Feng continues to find herself in a significant position to channel the likes of Li.

"Her grand slam victory was a huge boost to the growth of tennis in China. Similarly, I hope I can help make golf more universal and popular in China," Feng said last year in an exclusive interview with Tencent, ESPN's digital partner in China.

After winning the bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Feng started to feel like her homeland and the world of golf were finally starting to pay more attention. Golf hadn't made an appearance at the Games for 112 years. And it was the first time a Chinese golfer (male or female) won a medal for this sport. Feng made history for her country and the sport.

Similar to the reaction she received after winning in Rio, Feng wants her ESPYS nomination and hopeful victory to continue to enhance the game of golf in China.

"If I can get this award, it is going to tell everybody that China is one of the strongest countries in golf," Feng said. "Hopefully, that is really going to inspire junior golfers, and hopefully there will be more Shanshans and more No. 1s coming out of China."

But beyond what this ESPYS nomination means for Feng and the Chinese sports community, for the first time in ESPYS history, an entire category ("Best Female Golfer") is comprised of Asian-born players. And this isn't lost on Feng, especially since eight of the top 10-ranked LPGA players are from Asia.

"I think it's amazing. I think Asian golf, especially on the women's side, is doing really well. I'm really proud to be one of them. All four of us have been No. 1 in the past year, period. So, it's my honor to be nominated at the same time as them," Feng said.

After holding the No.1 rank for 23 weeks from Nov. 13, 2017 to April 22, 2018, Feng lost her position to fellow nominee and South Korean golfer Inbee Park. So far in the 2018 season, Feng remains consistent in the top-10 women's world golf rankings (currently ranked No. 6). But, the three other nominees in the "Best Female Golfer" category continue to outperform her on the course and edge her out of the rankings. Through July 9, the three other nominees have held on to the top three ranking spots: South Korean golfers Inbee Park (1) and Sung Hyun Park (2) and Thai golfer Ariya Jutanugarn (3).

And, yet, despite knowing that the three other nominees have outperformed her over the past few months, Feng isn't putting pressure on herself. Instead, she's applauding her competitors and celebrating their greatness.

"I wasn't surprised when Inbee Park beat me and became No. 1. She is an unbelievable golfer. And Ariya, she's so strong and talented. I know that she's going to become No. 1 again anytime," Feng said, "The two of them are the fiercest competitors and strongest players right now."

After all, this is just golf. It's ever-changing. Feng knows what it feels like to be on the top. And she knows what it feels like to barely make the cut -- or get cut completely. And no matter what happens at this year's ESPYS, Feng wants the public and those watching the EPSYS to know that, win or lose, it's an honor to be nominated. And no matter what, she will always be the "fun, silly person" on the LPGA Tour who enjoys being called "Jenny Money" and wearing her signature cow pants and cow polo on the course so her fans can spot her.