RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – It’s as though Shanshan Feng never left.
Feng returned to the LPGA Tour with a flourish on Thursday, carding a bogey-free, 67 to vault near the top of the leaderboard on Day 1 of the ANA Inspiration. It was her first competitive start in 16 months, since the 2019 CME Group Tour Championship.
Feng’s round was made more impressive given she said she didn’t pick up a single club during her year away from the tour. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the former world No. 1 remained at her home in China, rather than compete on tour.
“Last year was a difficult year for everybody, and I just made a decision at the middle of the year to go back to China and maybe take some time off with my friends and family at home,” Feng said. “And I really enjoyed the whole time over there, but of course I missed play.”
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The highlight of her Round 1 return came at the par-3 17th, where she chipped in for birdie.
“I did have some luck on the course today,” Feng said about her chip. “On that 17th [hole], I didn't really have a very good chip but actually went in, hit the pin. So, it's been very nice on me for my first round coming back.”
Throughout the day, she relied heavily on the man she affectionately refers to as her boss, also known as Mercer Leftwich, her longtime caddie. The pair first began working together in 2011 and Leftwich has played a critical role in her success. During their time together, Feng has won 10 times, including the 2012 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. She also captured the bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016 with him on the bag. Thursday, she once again leaned on Leftwich to help navigate her in her return to competition.
“I didn't know how I would do on the course,” Feng said Thursday. “I was kind of nervous last night, but I said to myself, I said, ‘Hey, it's OK. Think about, you're just an old rookie. Everything is new for you here and just have no expectation.’”
Feng’s return is great for the women’s game. She’s one of the most entertaining characters. Feng often wears pants with coffee and donuts or others that look like a spotted cow. She enjoys karaoke and jokes about her love of food. She doesn’t take herself, or her golf, too seriously.
“[I] always try to find positive sides about my game, and I think my boss, Mercer, and also my family, manager, team, everybody supporting me,” Feng said, “so, I just didn't have much pressure on the course.”
And that easy going demeanor has served Feng well in major championships. She has 15 top 10s in addition to her victory in 2012. Thursday, she reminded the golfing world, once again, why she’s been a fixture when it comes to performing on the biggest stages in the women’s game.
It’s as though she never left.