Golf: China's Feng set to defend LPGA Championship crown

Feng Shanshan, who became China's first major golf champion by capturing last year's LPGA Championship, returns to defend her title at the $2.25 million event starting Thursday.

Seventh-ranked Feng and the rest of the world's top 50 players will take aim at a $337,500 top prize at Locust Hill Country Club, where Feng fired the best round of last year's event, a five-under 67, on Sunday to win by two shots.

"My life hasn't been really changed," Feng said. "People didn't know much about golf in China, so we had a great chance to promote it."

Golf's profile is also growing in China thanks to schoolboy Guan Tianlang, who became the youngest starter in Masters history last April at age 14 and was low amateur this year at Augusta National.

"He's fantastic," Feng said. "Maybe 2020 or in the future, I think China will become one of the most competitive countries in golf."

Asians already dominate women's golf, with the past eight major titles going to Asian-born players. American Stacy Lewis, world number two, was the last non-Asian to win a women's major -- the 2011 Kraft Nabisco Championship.

"When we started like 15 years ago, we had very positive images for the LPGA wins," said South Korean Shin Jiyai, the reigning British Women's Open champion.

"I was watching Se Ri Pak's win in the 1998 US Women's Open. So that's my biggest dream, be like her. That's why I get better and work harder in training and practice."

Feng's fame in her homeland has been less than that enjoyed by former world number one Tseng Ya-ni or Ai Miyazato in their countries.

"Ya-ni's like a rock star in Taiwan. It's like Ai Miyazato in Japan," Feng said. "Me, in China, well, I think I still can have a hamburger in my hand and a Coke in my hand and eat on the street and nobody would recognize me."

Feng has not won since her breakthrough triumph, but she changed her clubs last week to those of Japanese manufacturer Honma and finished second at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

"I'm really excited about this week because last week I had a good finish, and I think I'm ready for this week," Feng said.

The course, she said, looks ready to challenge the LPGA's top players.

"Scores won't be too low, I don't think," Feng said. "The fairways are just as narrow. The greens are actually maybe a little faster and the rough is really, really thick.

"Last year the reason I won was the final day I hit 17 fairways, and the only one that I missed the fairway, I made a birdie. So the longer the better."

Feng's goal is to claim the world number ranking now held by South Korean Park In-Bee, who won this year's first major title at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

"I still can't believe I'm number one," Park said. "It's tough to believe that I am the top player of this great tour. This is a world tour with so many different players representing so many different countries.

"It's still a big fight for the number one player every week and it could change every week. We are really good for each other, we inspire each other and that's very good for the tour."

World number three Choi Na-Yeon, the reigning US Women's Open champion, is also in the title hunt.

"I like to play these difficult courses," she said. "It's just different mind-set. I have to be really patient until the last hole. I need to accept every situation."

Australia's 38-year-old Hall-of-Famer Karrie Webb, who last week captured her 39th career LPGA title at the ShopRite Classic, has the most triumphs of any active player and seeks her eighth major victory after ending a win drought of more than two years.

"I guess I don't really look at the age thing," Webb said. "I know what I'm capable of and I know that's good enough to win out here."