JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (April 11, 2019) – When Augusta National Golf Club opened its gates Thursday morning for the 83rd edition of The Masters, it renewed the tradition of the most prestigious golf tournament in the world.
One week earlier, a new tradition began, and it was one that would’ve seemed impossible just a few short years ago.
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Augusta National was founded by investment banker Clifford Roberts and golf legend Bobby Jones in 1933, their vision to build the world’s most pristine golf course carried out by architect Dr. Alister Mckenzie. One year later, the first Augusta National Invitation Tournament, now The Masters, took place at the club, with Jones’ close associates the only competitors initially invited to the historic competition. It took only a few short years for the tournament to evolve into a destination for the globe’s top golfers, quickly rising through the ranks of the golf world to be considered one of the sport’s most sought-after titles.
But as the years passed, while the tournament continued to evolve with the rapidly changing game, the host courses policies would fall behind a rapidly changing society.
A club that can only be joined via invitation, Augusta National would not allow an African-American to play in The Masters until 1975, well after the race barrier was broken in many other major sports. It would be 15 more years, under threats of protests from race relations groups, until Augusta would admit its first African-American member, television executive Ron Townsend.
Seven years later, up-and-coming African-American superstar Tiger Woods would win The Masters and set a tournament scoring record by finishing 18-under-par, also winning the event by 12 strokes, most in tournament history. Woods would take the sport by storm, winning three more Masters championships while dominating the game for more than a decade. His first title helped usher in change to the game, and to Augusta, as the first non-white winner of the much-lauded tournament.
The same year Woods won his first Masters, another golfer that would be a part of breaking down Augusta’s last big barrier was just coming into the world more than 16,000 miles away from the home of her history.
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Hee Ying Loy was born January 30, 1997 in Johor, Malaysia to Heng Chiew Loy and Nyet Chin Wong. Loy’s father Heng Chiew played golf and got her daughter into the game at a young age.
“I earned my first set of golf clubs when I was seven,” Loy said. “My dad said if I finished at the top of my class, he would buy me a set of clubs. I finished first in the class and that’s when we started to look for coaches.”
But resources for Loy were scarce, meaning it would take some sacrifices from her family, and a selfless local, to give her the tutelage she needed to progress.
“When I got into golf seriously, my dad largely stopped playing,” Loy said. “I come from a family that didn’t have a lot of money, and he wanted to save what he had for me to be able to play. We found a pro back home that charged us very little for lessons because he knew about our (financial) situation. Then along the way he just started teaching me for free, and he’s been my golf coach ever since.”
Loy was strong on the course, strong in the classroom and possessed a discipline that her family instilled in her that was set to take her talents to a new level.
“I would go to school and study and then every afternoon, and sometimes into the night, go practice golf,” Loy recalled. “I used to get mad at my dad if he would wake up early and go to the range without me. I’d call him to see where he was and if he was there I’d say ‘why didn’t you get me?’”
But with times already tight, a crushing blow to the Loy family made her future uncertain.
“When I was 12 my mom passed away,” Loy said. “Things got tougher from there. My dad was having to work extra to try and pay off the medical bills, and golf of course costs money, so I was at the point where I almost gave up on golf entirely to just focus on school.”
In the difficult time, Loy’s play slipped as she coped with the passing of her mother, Nyet Chin. Unsure of how far golf could take her, the seventh-grader was at a crossroads at a formative time in her life, but it was ultimately her late mother that kept Loy coming back to the course.
“It was my mom’s dream for me to be a professional golfer,” Loy remembered. “I knew I had to keep going.”
Once Loy made the decision to push through the difficult times her family encountered and continue with golf, her work would pay off, as she made the Malaysian National Team at the age of 14. Once on the national team, tournament expenses and related costs were paid for, easing some of the financial stress on her father, and Loy would begin to turn heads, finishing in the top-10 in the Callaway World Junior Championship in San Diego in her first trip stateside.
Across the United States from where Loy was making a statement, Augusta was finally doing the same, admitting their first female members 10 years after being admonished by the National Council of Women’s Organizations for alleged sexism and widespread discrimination.
Little did Loy know, the historic and long overdue move would lay the foundation for history of her own, history that may never have come to be without East Tennessee State University.
“I don’t think I really set myself apart from everyone else until college,” Loy posited. “When I got here I didn’t know if I could become the kind of player I have. But the coaching I’ve gotten from Coach (Stefanie Shelton) has really raised my confidence a lot, she helped me realize how good of a player I am, and I started to see it.”
Shelton, the longest-tenured women’s coach at ETSU in her 17th season at the helm of women’s golf, saw something special in Loy from the start.
“Immediately I saw in her somebody that could be the total package,” Shelton proclaimed. “She had a great mind, was a spectacular ball striker, but I could tell she struggled with the vision of ‘where can I be?’ So from day one I’ve told her ‘don’t worry about the small stuff because you’re going to be absolutely phenomenal.’”
Loy has been exactly that, setting the program’s single-season scoring average record in 2016-17, taking 23 top-10 finishes, 15 top-five finishes, three individual tournament titles, two NCAA regional appearances, and upon conclusion of her career at ETSU in May, the all-time scoring average mark at ETSU.
“I knew she was a great player,” Shelton said. “But I don’t think I knew just how great she could be. She has grown tremendously here.”
Loy’s growth is easy to quantify, with her statistical improvement from her freshman year to her senior season, as well as progress along the way, overwhelmingly apparent. Meanwhile, at Augusta National, the 2012 decision to allow female members into the Club after 78 years of refusing to do so was more difficult to quantify as the years passed. The decision was made, but the impact wasn’t visible, long lasting, or on a large enough scale considering the sizeable footprint the name Augusta National carries. It was time to double down on change, make a tangible difference, and quantify for the world to see.
It was time for growth.
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That maturation came in the form of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, planned as an annual tournament to showcase the 72 best amateur players in the world the week before The Masters. The 2019 version of the event would be the first organized, 18-hole women’s golf competition in the Club’s checkered past. At long last, change would be seen, heard, and felt by the women’s golf community that was shut out of Augusta for nearly eight straight decades.
One of the 72 in the field? Loy, whose growth was wholly separate from Augusta throughout her golf career, but would now have the opportunity to grow with the 86-year-old course in a landmark event that she, quite literally, never could’ve imagined.
“This tournament never existed when I was growing up, it’s not something I could’ve dreamed of because it didn’t exist,” Loy exclaimed. “The girls now can dream of playing and dream of winning at Augusta National.”
Following two rounds at Champions Retreat Golf Course to determine the 30 players that would compete in Saturday’s final round at Augusta, Loy finished 51st, missing out on the chance to play competitively at the site of The Masters. While she wouldn’t win the tournament, the world’s No. 1 amateur Jennifer Kupcho taking that honor, Loy broke down barriers on a multitude of levels. In addition to representing ETSU at the inaugural event that thrust the women’s amateur game into a spotlight unlike any it had seen before, Loy was also the first Malaysian to be invited to play at Augusta, something she treasured after driving down Magnolia Lane for her practice round Friday morning.
“I have a lot of pride in that,” Loy beamed. “Seeing the big leaderboard at Augusta with my name and the Malaysian flag next to it, and knowing that was the first time that flag was there, that was really, really amazing.”
That wasn’t all Loy will remember about the special morning, trying to take in every detail of the hallowed grounds of the storied course before her 10:01 a.m. tee time.
“The range was unreal, the greens were perfect, and they even opened up a special practice area that they only use for the really big tournaments,” Loy said. “I spent about an hour warming up, and then I hit that first drive off the 10th tee, that was really special.”
Loy didn’t track her score, as she tried to soak in every moment, sight, smell, and sound of a place many aspire to end up, but few can say they have been.
“It is so beautiful,” Loy reminisced. “The amount of work that goes into making it look the way it does –
the trees were cut perfectly, the flowers were blooming – the whole feeling of being at Augusta is just different than being anywhere else.”
Beauty though, in this case, is a beast.
“The course is intimidating,” Loy said. “Some of the greens are really big but you may only have a very small area to shoot at on them, and if you don’t hit that you can end up in big trouble. The undulation of the greens as well, you can be standing on one side and you won’t be able to see your ball. Everything about it is intimidating, it absolutely lived up to everything people say about it and then some.”
It wasn’t just the course that made the week special for Loy, as the great importance of this event wasn’t lost on the golf community that made sure they were there to witness the momentous occasion.
“I saw Tommy Fleetwood, Hideki Matsuyama, Bubba Watson,” Loy said. “The first tee ceremony with Lorena Ochoa, Annika Sorenstam, Sari Pak and Nancy Lopez, the legends of women’s golf. To be able to be there with them and see that historic moment was incredible.”
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Sixteen-thousand miles away lies Loy’s home, a place with two universities that offer women’s golf programs. Loy admits she almost didn’t come to the United States, feeling the road closer to home may have been easier and more comfortable. But Loy has never been one to take the easy road, persevering through the loss of her mother, financial hardships and questions of whether golf was truly something she wanted to pursue. Looking at the path Loy has followed, she’s thankful it’s led her to a place where she’s been able to make a second home, and make an impact for her first.
“I’m so thankful for Coach Shelton and ETSU,” Loy said. “I’ll always remember my time at Augusta, but I’ll remember that when I played it I was a student-athlete at ETSU, my home away from home. And I hope back in my home of Malaysia the up-and-comers are saying ‘Loy did it, I’m going to do it’, because that’s true. If I can do it, you can do it.”
As for the lifelong goal her mother instilled in her of being a professional golfer, Loy isn’t there yet, with a month left to go in her collegiate career before pursuing the dream that would be the ultimate in honoring her mother’s memory. But as the first from her country to make it to the grandest stage of golf and play in the most groundbreaking women’s golf event of the last 30 years one week before the world’s best professionals take on Augusta National, Loy knows the penultimate achievement in this portion of her career has gone a long way towards getting to the goal she and Nyet Chin set out to accomplish.
“Being there – you felt like you made it.”
In more ways than one, she already has.