SHANGHAI, China -- When Cindy Feng first saw golf balls, she thought they were food. At Sand River Golf Club in Shenzhen, China, the bright white spheres, arranged neatly on plastic trays, looked to the 4-year-old just like tangyuan, the round dumplings made of glutinous rice flour traditionally served during the first full moon of the Chinese New Year. Then, when her father told her there was a golf term known as a "fried egg," young Cindy was sold. "I was like, 'Cool! Golf is full of food!'" remembered Cindy, now 13.
Much has happened in the nine years since Feng first thought a Titleist might be tasty. She moved to Florida. She started training under world-renowned golf teacher David Leadbetter. She won tournament after tournament. She qualified for the 2009 U.S. Women's Open and was the youngest player in the 156-person field.
Oh yeah, and then there was that time, back in China, when she played two holes with Tiger Woods. And while Feng says she remembers only bits and pieces of that unusual encounter -- she was only 5 at the time -- many close to her believe it was what transpired that November afternoon in 2001 that planted the seeds for all the successes that would follow.
"Tiger's China trip changed my daughter's life," said Feng Delin, 54, Cindy's father. "Lots of kids from her generation took the path of golf all because Tiger came to China and introduced the game to the Chinese people."
Tiger makes his fourth appearance in China this week in the HSBC Champions, the newly anointed World Golf Championships event held annually at Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai. But his first trip to China, back when Tiger was just 25 and coming off his second win at the Masters, almost didn't happen. It was scheduled just two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and security concerns had already forced the cancellation of an Evander Holyfield-John Ruiz boxing match slated for Beijing in late November.
It was determined, however, that China at the time was just about the safest place in the world to be. So the show went on, much to the relief of the event's organizers, IMG and Shenzhen's Mission Hills Golf Club, who had been planning the spectacle for nearly 18 months. The weekend event, scheduled to coincide with the announcement of China's ascension into the World Trade Organization, was intended to stimulate the growth of golf in a country barely aware of the sport's existence.
Up until that point, golf was little more than an expensive hobby for a few hundred thousand very wealthy Chinese.
"We wanted to spark interest in the game, especially among junior golfers," explained John Cappo, former managing director of IMG's China operations. "It was our belief that to do that, you must first create major golf events in China, so people have something to aspire to."
Thus, the BBK Tiger Woods Mission Hills Challenge was born.
On the first day, Tiger would hold a clinic for a few dozen aspiring local golfers and play in an exhibition stroke-play match against four of the top pros from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The following day, Tiger would play another round, this time paired with a different group of amateurs at each hole. The setting was ideal: Shenzhen, the first of China's liberalized "special economic zones," is a vibrant business hub of 8 million people that sits just across the border from Hong Kong in Guangdong province, birthplace of golf in modern China.
It proved to be a hot ticket -- and a pricey one. Entry was around $130 per day, and while it's unclear how many of the 100,000 or so attendees actually paid face value, local news reports at the time called the exhibition the most expensive sporting event in Chinese history.
Tiger received some $2 million for his time, and paid nearly $500,000 in local taxes, according to media reports. The following year, it was widely reported that he was the top taxpayer in Shenzhen for 2001, although that is likely more a commentary on the rampant tax evasion among wealthy Chinese than on the size of Tiger's paycheck.
To be sure, Tiger was not the only person at Mission Hills that weekend with deep pockets. Well-heeled amateurs paid as much as $80,000 to play a single hole with the world's best golfer. And Duan Yongping, chairman of Guangdong-based BBK Electronics, signed his company on as title sponsor of the event with the stipulation that he could golf all 18 holes with Tiger. Five years later, Duan made headlines for spending $620,100 for the right to have lunch with Warren Buffet.
It's not surprising then that Feng Delin feels like he got a "favorable price" -- he paid only $30,000, and his daughter got to play two holes with her idol.
"Of course, back then when they said $30,000 to $50,000 per hole, we thought it was expensive," said Feng, a former literary magazine editor who "plunged into the commercial sea" in 1989 and made a fortune on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in the 1990s. "Looking back, even $100,000 per hole would still be worth it. For kids who want to play golf for their whole life, it's worth it."
Feng, the son of rice farmers, took up golf in his 40s, the year after Cindy was born, and quickly became addicted. He purchased memberships at three Shenzhen golf clubs and would sometimes play 54 holes in a single day. When Cindy was 4, the elder Feng started bringing her with him to the golf course. She was often sick as a small child, and he felt the fresh air would do her good. Initially, Cindy spent time with a babysitter making sand castles in a practice bunker. Then, she picked up a golf club for the first time, and never made sand castles again.
"Ever since I started playing golf, I really liked it," said Cindy Feng, who soon preferred watching televised golf to cartoons. "So even when I was 4-and-a-half, I started asking my dad more about the sport and who was good at it and who I should look up to. Back then, my first and only role model was Tiger. So when I got a chance to meet him, I was like, 'Oh my god, that's awesome.'"
Cindy Feng says back in 2001 she was "just a little kid who didn't know what was going on," and that obliviousness is probably what got her through the day. Most people would have cracked. Cindy, all of 5 years old, was playing with Tiger Woods in front of more than 10,000 people including busloads of reporters shipped in to tell the world how everyone fared.
There were distractions galore. Mission Hills was a madhouse. Traffic was backed up for miles on the highway leading to the golf club. Parking lots were overflowing, and hundreds of ticket holders raced to the venue on foot.
The scene inside was just as crazy. Golf in China was only 17 years old at the time, and golf etiquette was just as foreign as the game itself. Spectators barreled through bunkers. Kids rolled down hills and played in the sand. If people weren't snapping photographs, they were shouting into their mobile phones. Organizers made repeated announcements pleading with the fans to settle down: You don't want to embarrass China, they said.
"It was a huge crowd," remembered Feng, who played the par-5 16th and par-4 17th holes of the Jack Nicklaus-designed World Cup Course with Tiger. "What I saw at the U.S. [Women's] Open this year wasn't even close -- not even half the size. When you play with Tiger, all you see is all different kinds of colors when you look across the crowd. You don't see any green or any grass or anything. That's how packed it was."
And how did Feng handle the pressure? How did the cute, short-haired girl in the visor, pink plus fours and black-and-white saddle shoes perform? She went bogey-par and afterward kissed Tiger on the cheek. Even though her father hadn't paid for it, Tiger let Cindy walk the 18th hole with him, as well. He held her hand as they headed down the fairway. When it was all over, Cindy hugged Tiger's leg and wouldn't let go.
"Back then I was just fooling around," Feng said. "But I think that over time the experience with Tiger did help me determine my goals more."
Those goals are now fairly simple: Feng wants to be a professional golfer. She said she figured that out when she was 8 or 9, about the same time her family moved to Orlando so she could train with Leadbetter. And she appears to be headed in the right direction.
The American Junior Golf Association already has Feng, just an eighth grader at Windermere Prep (Windermere, Fla.), ranked No. 2 among female golfers aged 12 to 18. She was recently named an AJGA first-team All-American. In 2009, when she won two AJGA events and earned six top-10 finishes in 10 starts, Feng's low tournament round of the year was a 67 during the McDonald's Betsy Rawls Girls Championship.
"She has a very strong work ethic, one that rivals that of the LPGA Tour players I teach," Leadbetter said. "If we are talking ladies' golf, or more specifically girls' golf, Cindy has set the bar in terms of her achievements and the way she goes about her training. I've never seen a female golfer so young who matches her daily intensity."
Feng may be only 13, but she already has a highly skilled, highly paid "team" of adults working for her. She has her own strength coach, her own yoga and meditation instructor, her own massage therapist and her own tutor in golf course management. Too much, too soon? Feng's father, the man who pays for all this expertise, isn't worried.
"I think my daughter is the same as Tiger -- she is born for golf," he said. "She likes golf, so we don't have other plans for her. Even if she doesn't play golf, we have enough money to raise her for her whole life, even two lives, even 10 lives. She is not playing golf for money."
And what of Tiger? He lives in Orlando, too. But Cindy said their paths haven't crossed again since that sunny afternoon eight years ago.
"I know a lot of people who know him," she said, "so hopefully sometime I will meet him again. But I doubt he'd remember me."
Dan Washburn is a Shanghai-based writer. Visit him online at http://danwashburn.com.