By Peter Rutherford
SEOUL (Reuters) - Chinese golfers on the U.S. women's tour may decide not to play in a tournament next month in Hawaii sponsored by South Korean conglomerate Lotte Group, a sign that fallout from a diplomatic row between Beijing and Seoul over a missile defence system is increasingly spilling into the sports world.
Rio Olympics bronze medallist Shanshan Feng decided not to play after she and three other Chinese players - Simin Feng, Jing Yan and Xiyu Lin - were informed it was in their best interests not to take part in the event due to its association with Lotte, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.
One of the sources said that at least one player received an instruction not to attend the Lotte event from someone connected to China's national team. The source declined to name the player and it wasn't immediately clear how such a message had been passed onto the others.
However, Simin Feng herself, and Shanshan Feng's agent in China, both denied in interviews that the players were being pressured by the Chinese authorities to pull out.
“The four of us were talking about it a little bit because now it’s such a sensitive issue," said Simin Feng, who is currently in California preparing for the first major of the season.
The Orlando, Florida-based golfer, who finished in the top 10 in two Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) events last year, said that she had yet to decide whether to play in the Lotte-backed LPGA tournament on April 12-15.
"I'm really for my country and with the politics nowadays, both countries are not at a very good situation." But the 21-year-old added: "No one really seriously came up to us and said, ‘you really shouldn’t play.'"
Relations between Beijing and Seoul have been damaged by the plans to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea to defend against the threat from North Korea. China is concerned that the system's powerful radar could also be used to track Chinese missiles, undermining its security.
Earlier this year, Lotte approved a land swap with the South Korean authorities, enabling the system to be deployed on a site that is part of a golf course the company owns. The move prompted a backlash against Lotte in China, with Chinese authorities closing dozens of its retail stores following inspections.
China is South Korea's largest trading partner and the dispute over THAAD has resulted in a sharp decline in Chinese tourists going to South Korea. Entertainers have faced a cultural freeze because of the dispute, with South Korean singers and actors blocked in various ways from reaching a mainland Chinese audience, and dozens of Korean-focused blogs suspended in China.
OTHER SPORTS AFFECTED
In the sports world, the tensions have affected many sports, including soccer, tennis, climbing, and golf. Chinese players have pulled out of various events in South Korea, according to South Korean media.
Shanshan Feng, who has won six events on the LPGA Tour, including a major title at the 2012 LPGA Championship, declined to comment when asked about the issue in California on Wednesday.
Ruby Chen, Shanshan Feng's Shanghai-based agent at global sports management firm IMG, said Feng "most likely won't be attending" the $2 million Hawaii tournament, an event which she has played in each year since it came onto the schedule in 2012.
"Yes she played that tournament last year but she's always adjusting her schedule every year," said Chen.
Chen said Shanshan Feng, 27, would not play as many tournaments or travel as much this year so that she could stay healthy and prolong her career. The decision was not related to issues linked to Lotte, and Feng had not received any official instruction to pull out, Chen added.
The two other players, Yan and Lin, both declined to comment.
LPGA AWARE OF SITUATION
An official at China's General Administration of Sport said he had not heard of the players being told to skip the event and said it was up to them to decide when and where they play.
The LPGA said players had to confirm their participation in the tournament by next week.
"We are aware of the situation, which is a complex one, and will continue to discuss with our players," the LPGA told Reuters in a statement. "We fully support all decisions made by our players."
While the LPGA has been making inroads into China, where it now plays two events each year, in recent years it has had a much closer relationship with South Korea.
Since Pak Se-ri's groundbreaking win at the 1998 U.S. Women's Open, around 25 percent of all LPGA tournaments have been won by Korean players. Seven of the current women's top 10 were born in South Korea.
Jon Podany, the LPGA’s chief commercial officer, said last year that South Korean television agreements were the Tour's top source of revenue, while South Korean firms continue to put up large sums of cash to sponsor events.
This season, South Korean companies such as Lotte and automaker Kia sponsor five events on the Tour, putting up millions of dollars in prize money each year.
All four Chinese players took part in the Kia Classic, which finished on Sunday, with Shanshan Feng finishing ninth.
Lotte has been a key sponsor in the South Korean sports arena over the years, ploughing cash into a variety of sports, including golf and baseball. It has also agreed to sponsor the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next February.
The row over the missile defence system also affected a women's tournament co-sanctioned by the Korean, Chinese and European Tours in Haikou, China earlier this month.
Lotte-sponsored player Kim Hae-rym won the event but Chinese broadcaster CCTV continually shot pictures of the South Korean from a distance or from behind, focussing on her shoes in close-up shots and avoiding showing her cap with 'Lotte' emblazoned on it, according to Korean media.
It then failed to broadcast the prize giving ceremony, prompting South Korea media to dub Kim the "Faceless Champion".
(Additional reporting by Suyeong Lee in SEOUL, Larry Fine in CALIFORNIA, Adam Jourdan in SHANGHAI, SHANGHAI newsroom; Editing by Martin Howell)