Hawaii-born Monica Keo (R) was inspired to play golf from an early age by her Cambodian father, Patrick (L). Photograph supplied
European Ryder Cup miracle or American meltdown, Medinah, Illinois, was the focus of the golfing world’s attention on the last Sunday of September. A day later in Aurora, Oregon, an 18-year-old girl of Cambodian descent with promising talent was raising the spectre of a return to her ancestral home for a shot at the Olympic Dream.
Hawaii-born Monica La Keo, whose parents are from Cambodia, is a first-year student at Washington State’s Seattle University, on a golf scholarship majoring in sports and exercise science. She could prove to be a game-changer if her wish to represent Cambodia is granted.
The Seattle varsity team, the Redhawks, came third in their first tournament of the 2012-13 season, the Rose City Collegiate, after a tough final round among 14 teams and 74 players at the Langdon Farms Golf Club in Oregon last week.
Keo finished a career-best joint third with a eight-over-par total of 224, carding the second-most birdies with nine. After an impressive even-par 72 in the first round, Keo shot an identical 76 in the following two for her best aggregate at this level.
At the time of writing, Keo’s team will be halfway through the Edean Ihlanfeldt Invitational at Sahalee Country Club in Redmond, Washington.
Keo’s scores may not sound sensational, but there is no mistaking her promise and her determination to grow.
Her best 18-hole effort so far has been a two-under-par 70 – which is quite an achievement for a girl who at 10 casually picked up a club from her father’s golf bag one fine day and swung it well enough to fall in love with the game’s charms ever since.
Keo’s academic career and golfing skills were, from the age of 14 to 17, shaped at the prestigious Punahou School, a Hawaiian private institution whose celebrity alumni include US President Barack Obama, folk singer Bob Shane and professional golfer Michelle Wie.
She took gold medals at the ILH Golf Tournament three years running from 2009-2011.
Among the 5,000 junior golfers globally, she made it into the 122 picked to play in the Optimist International Junior Tournament at the PGA National Golf Resort in Palm Beach, Florida. She finished 31st there, but what followed was a scholarship to play golf for Seattle University in 2011 at the age of 17.
A whole new golf horizon had opened up for her.
Sights set on Rio Games
Keo’s idea of greener pastures is to represent Cambodia in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where golf will be a medal discipline for the first time.
“I want to see Cambodia get on the Olympic map when golf makes its debut in Rio de Janeiro. I am of Cambodian heritage and I want to encourage other Cambodians to pick up the game,” Keo told the Post in an email interview.
“I would like to be a role model as the first Cambodian woman to play golf at this level and open the world’s eyes.
"It would be an honour and a truly great experience to be able to represent the country that my family holds so dear and has strong ties to.”
From Cambodia with love
Monica’s father, Patrick Keo, has been her motivator and first coach. An enthusiastic golfer himself, Patrick and his wife Renee were forced to leave Cambodia in tragic circumstances and relocate to the US in 1981.
Both were Cambodian refugees and survivors of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, suffering enormous personal loss. It was the US that gave them a new life, a new beginning and a new direction – even new names.
Patrick was Keo Sophat from Kampong Cham province. His father and sister were killed by the Khmer Rouge, although his mother still lives in Cambodia.
Renee, whose original name was Sopheap, was raised in Battambang. Both her parents and all of her siblings were slain during the regime.
Patrick and Renee, who came to US with lots of hope and not much else, put themselves through school.
Patrick earned an MBA degree in Management and is now well placed in his job as a business consultant. Renee works for the State of Hawaii’s Department of Transportation. The couple live in the town of Oahu, watching as their only daughter vigorously pursues her studies and her golf.
“What Monica is looking for is a sponsor and a good coach,” Patrick Keo told the Post.
Interestingly, Monica also figured in the Punahou School junior tennis team, helping the side win the 2008 League Championships.
But her loyalties are now firmly with golf.
A charitable side
Away from the links and studies, Monica has been involved in community help.
She has earned the Presidential Service Award for 100 hours of community service and has also served as a missionary to Southeast Asia.
When she graduates in 2015, she has a choose whether to seek a career as a physical therapist or take inspiration from her school-mate Michelle Wie and get into the LPGA Tour.
“My favourite LPGA golfer would have to be Paula Creamer. She has a good game and is very consistent. Paula has a great heart in helping out the community,” said Keo.
“I think it’s admirable she interacts with the First Tee [a youth development organisation] in helping young kids learn the game. I look up to her as an LPGA role model. Her involvement with young golfers really inspires me to want to help other young learners of golf.”
The Angkor Golf Resort in Siem Reap has an open offer for Keo to use the Sir Nick Faldo-designed course if she makes it over to Cambodia.
Cambodia's golfing circles are agog with excitement that Keo could break the glass ceiling and become Cambodia’s first golf professional.
Being an LPGA Tour prospect makes her even more special, with the Olympics the icing on the cake, should it happen four years from now.
To contact the reporter on this story: H S Manjunath at [email protected]