This story is reprinted from FresnoState Magazine, as written by Eddie Hughes, for the Fall 2016 edition.
Madchen Ly sat at the dinner table in her parents’ Clovis home with a bowl of pho and a plate of pork ribs — just the home cooking she was craving after more than a month on the road. Her mom and dad, brother, aunt and uncle and two young cousins settled around the table for dinner, and the tasty meal quickly became an afterthought as the family visited with Madchen. Her mother got up, walked into the kitchen and brought back a small slice of strawberry-banana pie for Madchen — a splendid dessert, but not quite as desirable as the slice of pie she’s chasing.
Meet Madchen, a 5-foot tall professional golfer with $406 in earnings so far in her rookie year. She graduated from Fresno State in 2015 and now competes on the Symetra Tour, a set of developmental tournaments for Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) hopefuls. Play well enough on the Symetra Tour, and she can go to Qualifying School. Play well in qualifying tournaments, and she can earn her LPGA Tour card. That’s the slice of pie she’s hungriest for.
And make no mistake, while she may not talk much about the LPGA unless prodded, everyone close to her knows that’s her goal.
“I know she’s always nice and doesn’t say a lot, but she’s ultra-competitive,” says Pheng Ly, Madchen’s father, part-time caddy and biggest fan. “She’s got a lot of my personality. We may not say a lot, but internally, we are competitive people.”
She wants to make a living playing golf and to prove to herself that she belongs at the highest level. She’s close — as in she finished seventh out of 340-plus golfers at Stage I of Qualifying School at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage in late August. Last year, when Madchen tied for 113th at Stage III of Qualifying School, the top 49 golfers earned LPGA status.
“I don’t know if the card is as important to her as people saying, ‘Hey, I’m proud of you,’” Pheng says. “It would mean all the effort and all the time away from family and friends was worth it.”
Not to mention, at the LPGA level, there is potential for much higher earnings. Right now, on the Symetra Tour and in Qualifying School, Madchen is charged between $500 and $2,500 just to enter tournaments. Plus she has to fly all over the country, rent cars and stay either in hotels or with host families. Her parents help with what they can, but for now she’s tasked with seeking sponsorships and private support to fund the pursuit of her dream.
That dream began when Madchen was 8 years old. She recalls her father getting off work, picking her up and taking her to the local Hank’s Swank driving range. “I would just start pounding golf balls for hours, and then I just fell in love with the game right there,” she says. “I was always daddy’s little girl. He’s someone I can always go to for help, and he’s definitely been my No. 1 supporter. I couldn’t do this without him.”
She also couldn’t do this without her work habits. Even during her downtime, when she visits home, she’s rarely at her house.
“A typical day, I wake up, have breakfast, go to the gym, clean up and then I’m headed straight out to the golf course,” Madchen says. “I spend six to eight hours a day at the golf course — either playing, practicing or doing both. Basically the golf course is home to me, which is fine.”
Madchen is used to the busy schedule. Even before high school, she spent summer weekends traveling all over California to play in tournaments. By her junior year at Clovis High School, she gave a verbal commitment to attend Fresno State over numerous other universities that were also offering scholarships. Her senior year, she earned first-team all-Mountain West Conference honors and posted the lowest scoring average in Bulldogs history.
While she was setting new records at Fresno State, she was also paving new ground in the community. Her father believes she is the first Hmong-American female golfer to ever play at a Division I college.
“It’s a part of why she worked so hard,” Pheng says. “We want her story and our story to give the Hmong community, all Hmong people throughout the country, a reason to say, ‘Look at the possibilities’ for a Hmong woman who has grown up somewhat traditional in this country.”
One Hmong-American golfer, Megan Khang, has already joined the LPGA Tour. She’s earned more than $255,000 in her first year. Madchen and her father got a chance to meet Khang and her father last year. “I told Megan’s dad, ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s your daughter or my daughter, I just want it to be someone’s daughter,’” Pheng says. “If one of our daughters paves the way for someone else to make it, that’s a great thing.”
Pheng, a Fresno Pacific University alumnus, works as a maintenance and construction supervisor for Pacific Gas and Electric, overseeing about 25 employees. His wife (Madchen’s mother), Pang Vangyi, is a Fresno State alumna who works as a counselor at Fresno Adult School.
“The culture has always been male dominant, push your sons to succeed and want your daughter to marry into a good family, but we didn’t raise Madchen or her brother like that,” Pheng says. “We’ve always given them the opportunity to explore and to reach out, to do things that may not be the most commonly done. She just happened to say, ‘I want to play golf.’”
In the past four months alone, she’s played plenty — grinding through competitions in California, Indiana, Michigan and Florida.
Pheng thinks back to those days he’d pick Madchen up on his way home from work and take her to the driving range, when the prize at the end of play was giving her a high-five and taking her out for ice cream. If there is an emoji for feeling proud, it could be a photo of his face.
“Five years ago, I couldn’t imagine her being in the position she’s in,” Pheng says. “Ultimately, I know what her dreams are. We want to get on the LPGA Tour. But, for us, if she were to tell me in a few months, ‘Hey dad, this is it,’ we would have no regrets. I’m extremely proud as her father and her biggest fan.”
All photos courtesy of Cary Edmondson. Read the full issue of Fresno State Magazine HERE.