As unfortunate as some of the surprises have been this year, it seemed that the LPGA Tour had particular troubles recently with the pandemic, California Desert heat, and hazardous air quality due to forest fires ahead of the Cambia Portland Classic. But despite the many lows, there have also been beautiful moments. One of which was me in a rental car with the audacious LPGA Tour player Kelly Tan and her boyfriend Dustin “Dusty” Lattery.
As if the day hadn’t been long enough, having just landed in the evergreen wilderness known as Seattle after a three-hour flight from the California desert, fires and smoke diverted flights into Portland and left us stranded. That’s how the three of us ended up in an Enterprise minivan driving for two hours and 15 minutes. That travel delay turned out to be one of the most entertaining rides of my life as I gained a glimpse into Tan’s life. From that short trip, I learned how attentive, purposeful, and selfless the Malaysian professional is.
Though golf doesn’t define Tan, the sport has impacted how she lives her life. It has forced the 26-year-old to adapt on a moment’s notice, a prime example being the reason for our being together. Last-minute flight cancelations are a part of life on the road for an athlete. Once the flight board flashed “canceled,” Tan transformed into a multi-tasking queen, running to the nearest customer service counter while ordering a rental car and running the rest of the logistics in her head. Tan had to get to Portland. She needed to get tested before the LPGA-operated COVID-19 testing center closed at 8:00pm in order to play in the Cambia Portland Classic.
“You need a ride?” Tan asked me, and then she and Dustin said together, “You’re coming with us.”
After the customer service line came the car rental line. Then it was full throttle to Portland. With 22 minutes to spare, Tan completed the COVID nasal swab. Throughout the entire event, she wasn’t nervous. She’d done this many times. “As a golfer, you’re always being put in that position where you have to make a quick decision,” Tan told me. “I think it helps me a lot in life. For example, when I landed in Rio (for the 2016 Olympics) and they told me ‘We don’t know where your clubs are.’ You don’t panic. You breathe and then think, ‘What do I do?’
“I was horrified when the last bag was taken off the carousel and my golf bag hadn't shown up yet. When I went to the baggage counter, the airline told me that they were unable to find it in the system. Someone working in the baggage area didn't scan my bag and so they didn't know where it was at all. Could there be a worse time to lose my golf bag? A week went by. I hadn't swung a club in seven days.
“It was the day before the tournament and I finally got a call from the airline saying they found my bag and (would) send it to the Olympic village. I couldn’t (have been) happier seeing my clubs. I gave the club bag a big hug.”
Of our travel mishap, Tan says, “What happened in Seattle, it’s common. We landed in Seattle and (Dusty and) I thought ‘we’re probably not going to have the next flight.’ So, when everything hit, you just kind of go, ‘Okay, I need to be a step ahead.’ Just like in golf, you always want to be one shot ahead of what you want to do just so you know where you’re going. You have a purpose and a direction.”
Though the game of golf may not conjure up images of agility or strength, the sport is every bit as stressful as any other. That’s one of the reasons Tan fell in love with it.
“To play volleyball with my team as we traveled throughout Malaysia was a lot of fun,” Tan said of one of her other athletic pursuits. “But I also had a lot of injuries as a twelve-year-old and I don’t think my dad liked that. My dad, he’s always been a golfer. He always told me that ‘Golf is such a great game and skill whether or not you excel. It is something that you can play for the rest of your life.’ Volleyball requires you to find other people to play.
“That was the logic. I said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to try.’ He told me that golf is difficult and really technical. It takes a lot of time, patience, and hard work. I loved everything about that. I love that it’s not easy and that not everyone can just go and pick up a club and play.”
That love for the sport never went away, even when Tan lost a sponsor and her LPGA Tour status. As determined as she was to be the first in line at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Tan attached Q-School with the same calm, get-on-with-it attitude. It was just another bump in the road.
“Never have I felt that way before,” Tan wrote in an essay describing how she felt when her confidence dwindled. “It was as if I could not move forward. Nothing I was doing felt right. Sure enough, I lost my confidence on and off the course. I never really understood why or what I was doing was wrong.
“But with all of these emotions, I still felt fortunate because of all the people I had around me. They told me that life is full of ups and downs. There will always be obstacles and I have to be strong enough to get through them. There is a quote that resonates strongly with me. ‘If you are absent during my struggle, don’t expect to be present during my success.’”
With the wonderful people came empowering support. After two career Top 10’s on the Symetra Tour in 2019 and long practice days with coach Gary Gilchrist, Tan made bigger waves on the LPGA Tour. In 2020, she managed to make more cuts only missing one and claimed a Top 10 finish at the Marathon LPGA Classic presented by Dana in early August.
Quick but methodical, solving problems and pressing ahead while remaining aware and compassionate of those around her, confident, considerate and proud: those are the skills I saw from Kelly Tan in the Seattle airport during our travel dilemma. Those are the traits of a great golfer.
“If there’s a rookie, I would like them to know that they can always come up and ask me questions,” Tan said. “Maybe on the outside, I don’t look as inviting. Often, people say ‘Sometimes you look fierce when you don’t smile.’ And I respond, ‘Maybe I should work on that jaw muscle.’ I would like people to know that I’m always there to help and if I can do anything to make their life a little better, it will make me happy.”