Yueer Cindy Feng felt like something of an outsider when she first moved to Orlando, Fla., from the People’s Republic of China eight years ago at age 9.
She didn’t know any English, had no friends and was unfamiliar with the culture, but her parents thought it was the right decision for her fledgling golf career.
Now 17 and fully engrossed in American culture, that move appears to have paid off.
On Saturday, Feng earned a spot in Sunday’s 36-hole U.S. Women’s Amateur final with a 3-and-2 victory over Doris Chen at the Country Club of Charleston. A win in the championship match against Emma Talley would make Feng the first Chinese-born player to claim a USGA title.
Shanshan Feng – no relation – broke through last year to win the Wegmans LPGA Championship and become the first Chinese golfer to win a women’s professional major.
"In that sense, she’s like a pioneer," said Cindy Feng, who met Shanshan in Florida. "She’s really sweet. She’s really nice to me. She’s really down to earth and willing to talk with me."
Feng first learned the game at the Mission Hills Resort in China. Enrolled in the David Leadbetter Academy there, Feng caught the eye of Leadbetter himself when he visited for a clinic. Leadbetter agreed to work with the youngster in Florida, so Feng and her family moved to the United States.
For some, assimilating into a new culture is difficult. Feng was eager to learn English and adapt right away. In a few short years, she was winning American Junior Golf Association events and qualifying for USGA championships. In 2009, she played in the U.S. Women’s Open (missed cut), U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links (lost in Round of 32) and U.S. Girls’ Junior (first-round loss).
This week’s Women’s Amateur is her 11th USGA championship in the past five years.
By reading books, Feng’s English rapidly improved and she now feels more American than Chinese. She likes adding Cindy – her American name – to her given Chinese name of Yueer.
"My parents tell me, don’t forget where you came from," said Feng, who is home-schooled through the Florida Virtual High School.
So far, 2013 has been quite memorable for Feng, who made the cut at the Women’s Open, reached the final of the North & South Women’s Amateur at Pinehurst and now has advanced to the Women’s Amateur final. In Friday’s quarterfinals, she knocked out reigning NCAA Division I champion Annie Park, 6 and 4. On Saturday, she eliminated Chen, Park’s University of Southern California teammate.
Feng no longer works with Leadbetter. For the past two years, her swing coach has been Sean Foley, whose pupils on the PGA Tour include nine-time USGA champion Tiger Woods, 1999 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Hunter Mahan and reigning U.S. Open champion Justin Rose. Feng occasionally sees some of Foley’s noted players warming up on the range at Orange County National, but hasn’t formally met any of them.
Perhaps if she brings the Robert Cox Trophy back to Orlando next week, that will change.
A win on Sunday could do wonders for the growth of golf in China. Two weeks ago, five Chinese golfers competed at the U.S. Junior Amateur. Zecheng Dou has reached the quarterfinals of this year's U.S. Amateur Public Links and the third round of U.S. Junior Amateur. And last week, a team representing host China defeated a group of U.S. juniors in the third USA-China Youth Golf Match, co-sponsored by the USGA and China Golf Association.
Feng, however, isn’t worried about all that. She’s focused on Sunday’s marathon match.
"I’m playing well," said Feng, who has entered LPGA Tour Qualifying School this year as an amateur. "Right now, it’s just one step at a time."
The People’s Choice?
"Maybe I should’ve eaten my Wheaties this morning," Emma Talley, 19, of Princeton, Ky., joked when asked about her second shot on the 18th hole of her semifinal match against Alison Lee, 18, of Valencia, Calif. Talley hit a 4-iron from 184 yards out but left it shy of the green, leaving her in an almost identical position to Lee on the fairway.
Talley chipped to within a foot of the hole, eliciting a cheer from the sizable gallery that had followed the match throughout the day. Talley was 1 up going to No. 18, so Lee would’ve had to hole out from the fairway to force the match to extra holes. Lee chipped it close, but it wasn’t enough, and Talley advanced to the final.
As spectators dispersed, there was an abundance of praise for the rising sophomore at the University of Alabama, with many commenting, "It’s hard not to root for her." Throughout the championship, Talley has gained a large following, perhaps due to her strong Kentucky accent that resonates with this Southern crowd, or more likely due to her consideration for the fans and volunteers who have been supporting her this week.
As she walks from hole to hole, Talley is constantly pausing to greet fans and thank them for coming out this week. After winning her semifinal match, she circled the green and shook the hand of each volunteer who worked her match, before embracing her caddie/father, Dan.
Talley credits him for much of her success so far. "He hasn’t really been helping me too much with my golf game as much as being calm and collected," she said. "It’s really helped me realize how blessed I am to be here."
Doris Chen didn’t walk away with a USGA trophy this summer, but she did produce three strong performances. At the Women’s Amateur Public Links in June, she shared medalist honors with USC teammate Annie Park and reached the final match before suffering a 10-and-9 defeat to Lauren Diaz-Yi. She made the cut a week later at the U.S. Women’s Open and advanced to the semifinals at the Women’s Amateur.
"That record sounds pretty good, but I am definitely not satisfied with my performance," said Chen, who begins her junior year at USC in a couple of weeks. "I think they are good results, not just perfect [ones]."