Once upon a time

How Amelia McKee’s fairy-tale dream came true in Dubai

By Matt Smith
A golfing story that began more than a decade ago has taken a major step closer to a fairy-tale ending as Amelia McKee graduated from college to turn pro.

The 22-year-old said farewell to New Mexico State University and her ‘Aggies’ teammates following graduation on May 7 to set out on a new journey to fufil her lifelong ambition and become an LPGA professional golfer.

But this tale is not like your usual ‘Girl Beats The Odds’ feelgood All-American yarn. It began in a land far, far away that was as much a stranger to young female golfers as Amelia herself was to this desert city.

Amelia and her family moved to Dubai from Houston, Texas, when she was just 10 years old after her father, Rob, took a job in the oil trade in the Middle East. As a youngster in a foreign land, Amelia stuck close to her parents and was often out tagging along with her dad at the weekends. As her father was recovering from surgery — he was a college tennis player in his day — he turned to the game of golf to help his recuperation.

Soon, Amelia was swinging her golf club alongside him and a love story began.

A scholarship took Amelia to New Mexico State University, where she quickly became a key part of the ‘Aggies’ golf team.

This was not a tale without adversity as, back then, Dubai had not yet set up an individual system or academy for female players and Amelia normally found herself contending with boys her own age rather than girls. Undeterred, she worked hard on her game and was soon catching the eye of professionals, who had never seen a young female excel in the UAE before. 

“She loves the game and she’s got such a competitive spirit in everything she does,” Rob said back in 2010 ahead of the 10-year-old Amelia’s first big bow at the The Invitational hosted by Abdullah Al Naboodah at the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club.

Despite her age and diminutive size, young Amelia had shone at the Worldwide Golf Midweek Open played at Arabian Ranches Golf Club, shooting a net 65, gross 91, off a handicap of 26 to earn one of only two Golden Tickets to play in The Invitational. Her round was an astonishing five shots clear of the nearest junior and four clear of the nearest adult.

That competitive spirit Rob referred to remained throughout her journey in the UAE. 

“After my dad’s surgery and when he turned to golf for rehab in Dubai, I fell in love with the game,” Amelia told Golf Digest Middle East. “I always wanted to do what dad was doing, so I was out on the course with him. Soon I was picking up a club myself and hitting balls. 

“When we moved to the UAE, I quickly discovered that there was no such thing as a girl’s division in golf, so I was forced to learn the game in classes along with boys my age.

“While this was a challenge at first, it rapidly became a good thing as I got to be a part of changing this environment and open up opportunities for other young female players.

“The game became a passion for me and, I guess, I was given a lot of opportunities due to the fact I was a female. I was invited to compete in events and pro-ams, it was an amazing time.” 

Her progress in the game while balancing her time with studies and social life took her to the Claude Harmon Academy at The Els Club, Dubai, where things began to get serious in terms of a possible career in the game.

“When I began working with Claude, we focused as much off the course as on it. He began working on my agility, physicality and flexibility. Then came work on my distance because I was pretty much all the time competing with boys my age, so I would have to try to keep up with them on the fairway.

“Thanks to Claude and his team, I learnt the basics I needed that were specific to me and my game and that ultimately led me back to the States to take the next step on my journey.”

That next step was a scholarship at New Mexico State University, where Amelia quickly became a key part of the ‘Aggies’ golf team, with one eye on the pro circuit.

Amelia is aiming to get through Q-School next, while finding sponsors for her pro career.

 “I know it sounds strange but I had made my mind up when I was eight years old that I wanted to be an LPGA pro,” Amelia said. “Most parents might laugh and say ‘OK’ with a pat on the head and roll of the eyes, but my dad knew me and took me seriously. This was a real passion and ambition.”

If the task of balancing life away from home as a young freshman with studies, social life and a life-long determination to become a pro golfer were not enough, Amelia is one of the generation who had to contend with the Covid-19 pandemic during some of the most crucial years of her young life. 

“It has been an awesome few years, learning, playing and making new friends, but it was really difficult to contend with the pandemic at the same time,” she said. “We essentially lost a season of competing, which can really hurt you during your time at college.

“For this generation as a whole it has been so tough. We had to adjust from full-time at classes and on the course to going online.

“You really need to set out priorities at the best of times to balance social life, studying and then all the extra things like training and practice. It certainly has been hard at times to balance it all up.

“Mental health has to be looked after as well as sometimes you are out and about travelling and then you are cooped up, studying online. Freshman year was tough, where everyone has this new sense of freedom at college and starting a new chapter in life. Now as a senior and a graduate, it is easier and I have learnt a lot about how to get it all right.”

Even before moving to NMSU, a young Amelia had a lot of decisions to make about her future in the game.

“I had verbal agreements to go for a scholarship from about the age of 14,” she explained. “I knew it was where I was going but I was not sure how it all worked due to my time in the UAE and unfamiliarity with the sporting scene in the US.”

The UAE golf scene has changed rapidly since her early days in Dubai, and Amelia is impressed at the growth, and also keeps in touch with her old friends. 

“I know how much the UAE has changed since I was a kid as my mates from back then like Rayhan Thomas are now out here are college too and I always keep in touch with them,” she said. “We are still the best of friends and always keep up with developments back in the UAE through their families.

“Even when I was there, Dubai had such great courses like Emirates, Creek, Els, Monty… They had so many elite courses and facilities to help fine tune the game. And it is just getting better all the time.”

Amelia also recognises that full-time support is crucial if you are to get anywhere in the game.

“My fiancé, parents, grandparents have always helped me and supported me all the way, even when I am struggling emotionally after a poor game. 

“Guys back in the UAE like Claude and your own David Burke are always following my progress and giving me support. The parents of friends back there too are still cheering me on from afar on social media and continue to chart my progress.

“Then there is my ‘new’ college teammates, we have all made a lot of new friends to help support each other.”

Amelia found support and a strong bond with her friends and teammates at NMSU.

Following her graduation in early May, Amelia wasted no time in getting set for the biggest step in her life — turning pro and contending with a whole new batch of competitors. 

“It is difficult to know where I will fit in as a pro, but I know I will get there as I never stop trying and never give up,” she said. 

“I first head on to Q-School (in Florida in August), and look for sponsors. One advantage is a lot of the events are in Texas and we will be based in Houston.

“I just keep going as I know I can reach the top. A lot of the girls that are now on Tour on the LPGA I know already as I have played against them during my time so far. I know how to play them and know I can compete.” 

As the future awaits, Amelia has a simple message for any aspiring young golfers, male or female, and regardless of where you are based.

“Never give up on yourself,” she said. “It can be such an easy thing to do, especially in a game like golf, where you will have a lot of bad days. I can shoot an 87 one day and 63 the next, and the reason I can bounce back is because of the great team and people I surround myself with. You have to believe in yourself and surround yourself with others who believe in you more. They pick you up when you need them most and are crucial to help get you where you want and need to be.”

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