The world of sports has always been foreign terrain for me. In school, I enjoyed basketball and rugby, but never took them seriously, playing for fun (and because it was compulsory) and unbothered by defeat. While most friends discussed favourite football teams, this bookworm daydreamed about visiting BookXcess. So, meeting with 26-year-old Kelly Tan, the second Malaysian to make it into the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), opened my eyes to true passion for competitive sports.
Tan has always loved sports. During her schooldays in her hometown of Batu Pahat, Johor, she played almost everything. “I played every single sport in school except soccer or basketball. Anything where you have to run back and forth, I don’t do. I’d play badminton, ping-pong, the half-court stuff.” A naturally skilled volleyball player, she began playing competitively at 10. Although her team won gold medals, Tan was often injured.
“There were times I couldn’t get out of bed. I was a setter, so I always fell on my bum. My L4 and L5 [the two lowest vertebrae of the spine] were wrecked. You would think that a 10- or 11-year-old would just jump out of bed and get on with the day, but I felt like I was 100 because I couldn’t physically do it,” she explains.
Worried, Tan’s father put a stop to the volleyball and turned her to another sport when she was 12. “My dad took my siblings and me to the country club every weekend. My two elder sisters would go swimming — one was even a competitive swimmer — and dad would take me to the range. My younger brother and sister were still very young. Dad would buy 100 balls and he would hit, and then I’d pick up his club and hit. He was like, ‘Oh wow, you’re really good’. I’d just watch what he did and copy him.”
After showing her the fundamentals, Tan’s father, impressed by her natural talent, decided it was time to hire a professional teacher. “We took a course with the local pro at the club in Batu Pahat. My dad went to the range three or four times a week. He would take me along and we’d spend time together,” she says.
Tan admits that she did not fall in love with golf right away, but grew to appreciate the technicality of the game. She also enjoyed her weekend classes, where there were other children her age. “What really was fun was when our coach drove us in the buggy. We would say, ‘If you want us to play a course, we want a buggy’. He didn’t really let us drive, but we got to press the pedal and stuff. It was fun,” she reminisces.
From here on, Tan’s progress was incredibly quick. Within a year, she had got her handicap down to a single digit. Encouraged by her father and coach she competed in SportExcel Junior League events, which tapped into her naturally competitive nature. Impressed by her performance, the Malaysian Ladies Golf Association recruited Tan to train with the national team. She was only 14.
“Ever since then, I really took it seriously. I always did very well in tournaments. I won the Malaysian Open three times. At that time, nobody had done that. When I was 15, I felt like this was something that I wanted to do. I wanted to play professional golf,” she says.
Tan’s dream was to play on the LPGA Tour, so she trained hard. She practised every day after school and participated in camps during the holidays. She was so invested in her dream that, at 16, she decided to quit school, convincing her parents by presenting them a backup plan: work in the family car dealership. Today, 10 years later, she has no regrets.
Tan trained full-time and played in more tournaments, getting exposure and improving her ranking. At 17, she played in the LPGA, which Sime Darby had brought to Malaysia. She played well, and was placed T30th. “Sime Darby then contacted my parents and offered me a “Star” Scholarship. They had one request, which was that I finish high school so that, later on, if I wanted to go back to college, I could. So, I graduated from high school and they sent me to IMG Academy, a highly ranked junior academy in Florida, the US. It was like a boarding school. It was a big learning experience for me,” she says. Being away from her family and home for a long stretch was difficult, but she persevered.
After graduating, she returned home, played with the national team and participated in the SEA Games, where she won a bronze medal. The next step was to enter the LPGA Q-School; hundreds of players vie for just 20 spots. Tan made it to the final stage. “You have to play your ‘A’ game to get your card and I played my ‘A’ game. I had to make a birdie on the last hole on a 12 footer. I made that 12 footer and finished T13th.”
Fast forward to 2014, and Tan played her first LPGA event in the Bahamas. As a rookie, she placed well and received her first pay cheque. Tan continued to excel, even representing Malaysia at the Rio Olympics. Still, her rise through the ranks met with a few plot twists and hurdles that were seldom publicised.
“People who watch TV would think the LPGA Tour is glamorous. Sure it is, if you are among the top 30 players in the world. But if you’re not, it really is tough. It really is a grind. Most of the top 30 players have been out there for 10, 15 years, so they know what they’re doing. For the rookies who have been out there for only a few years, like me, there are so many things that you have to learn,” she says.
Unlike other sports at the Olympics, where competitors focus on preparing for the games and participate in motivational sessions, golfers swoop in to play and swoop back out to compete in other competitions. This stressful situation was aggravated because Tan had no support team, whereas players from the other countries did.
Then, in 2017, disaster struck. “One of my major sponsors discontinued its sponsorship. I had the worst year of my life,” she says. “I felt like shit. I almost wanted to quit. You doubt yourself: Why am I doing this? Obviously, they don’t see me as a rising star — all these thoughts come into your head. If five big corporations say they will support you, you feel like a million bucks. Everything comes down to what you think, in your head.
“But I’m grateful for my family who’ve always believed in me, and a couple of my sponsors who have always been on my side. Without them, I probably would have quit,” she adds. That same year, she lost her full LPGA status.
It is difficult to imagine that the brutally honest and capable woman before me had ever lost her confidence. Frankly, it is hard to even imagine her considering defeat, but she was definitely lacking financial support. “To be honest, I don’t feel like golf has got a lot of attention or support through the years. The sports council is not putting funds into Malaysian golf. To have more rising stars, we need support. The government looks at it like this: Once [golfers] turn pro, they make money; so, they don’t need us. But if you’re not in the top 30, you still need to get there. It’s the people who are still trying to take the step up who need funding,” she says.
Her first dream achieved, Tan has laid out her second: to win the LPGA. As such, slowing down is not an option. While working hard to raise funds, she also started to rebuild her confidence. Along with joining the Symetra Tour in 2018, Tan participated in a reality-TV competition called Cinderella Story, which featured 10 professional lady golfers from eight countries. The winner would get to participate in the Korean LPGA. Tan won but turned down the opportunity — she had her sights set on the LPGA Tour. “I thought it would be fun and was good exposure. Winning that gave me confidence,” she says in reference to the reality show.
Tan has continued her winning streak on the green, playing the Professional Malaysian Golf tour, returning to the LPGA in the US and receiving Class A/Veteran status. She is currently qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. Any time off is used to try and get funding, a tedious part of the system that Tan hopes will change.
“When Datuk Lee Chong Wei was competing, all he had to do was train, get in the best shape, eat well, sleep and compete. I feel like that should be my job, but I’m trying to get people to believe in me and to support a Malaysian woman golfer. This is all wrong … I’m just doing it because of my passion for the game. And you know what? I hope one day when I come home, I will grow the game. I can’t do it right now because I’m competing and I want to compete. I can’t do everything, but I can just speak out loud.”
This article first appeared on Feb 3, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.