She’s more than the American daughter of immigrants.
Megan Khang is the daughter of war refugees, of Hmong-American parents who will feel something stirring deeper than bone and marrow when they hear the national anthem play Thursday with Megan joining the U.S. team for the Solheim Cup’s opening ceremony in Scotland.
Lee and Nou Khang will be at Gleneagles feeling a sense of wonder thinking about where their escape from communist death squads 44 years ago has led them.
“We’re definitely living the American dream,” Lee said. “Looking back, this is something that we just couldn’t have imagined happening. We were Hmong children, in Laos, during the war, nobody knowing who we were, and now we’re going to the Solheim Cup, to watch our daughter play for the United States.
“This really is the greatest country on earth. There are opportunities here that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. This country has done more for us than people can know.”
Lee grew up one of 12 children in a family of rice farmers in Long Chien, once the largest Hmong settlement in the world. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was a secret CIA base in Laos where Americans trained Hmong as soldiers and pilots to fight communists in the Vietnam War.
Lee was just 7 when his family joined other Hmong fleeing for their lives after the American withdrawal. While he remembers little of his time in Laos, he recalls the family’s harrowing midnight escape across the Mekong River, to refugee camps in Thailand.
“I remember the gun shots,” Lee said. “I remember holding on to the boat for dear life.”
Many Hmong were killed on that river trying to leave Laos at war’s end.
Nou’s family also made its way to the United States through those Thai refugee camps. Like the Khangs, her family settled in the Boston, Mass., and Providence, R.I., areas. Lee and Nou make their home today with Megan in Rockland, Mass.
The first player of Hmong heritage to play the LPGA, Megan, 21, will now become the first to play in the Solheim Cup.
“It’s just surreal,” Nou said. “We’re just so proud, to see what she’s accomplishing, to see her playing for the United States.”
Lee and Nou completed the requirements to become U.S. citizens three years ago.
“We’re always going to be Hmong, but to become Hmong-Americans, to be part of this country, it was a tremendous honor,” Lee said. “We always wanted to make the most of it.”
When Hmong began fleeing the persecution of communists in Laos for their role in helping Americans in the war, they weren’t exactly embraced in the United States. Most Americans didn’t know the great allies Hmong were, because the Hmong’s role was part of a CIA covert operation, with American involvement in a “neutral” Laos a violation of the Geneva Peace Accords.
The American transition wasn’t easy, with so much U.S. resentment of the Vietnam War.
Hmong communities remain tightly bound by those challenges today. There’s immense pride in Khang’s rise in the LPGA ranks.
“Megan’s a very good role model,” said Mark Her, president of the Hmong National Golf Association. “She sets a good example to our kids, of what dreams are possible.”
When Khang played in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Hazeltine in Minnesota this summer, she gave a clinic to a Hmong-American youth group. One of the largest Hmong communities in the United States resides in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
“Megan and her family are real validation of what happens when you work hard for something,” Her said.
Lee didn’t even know what golf was when he arrived in the United States as a kid. He didn’t pick up a golf club until he was 32. He taught himself to play, watching YouTube video instruction and scouring Golf Digest.
“I’d go right to the ‘How to break 90’ and ‘How to break 80' sections,’” Lee said.
Lee is a self-made swing coach, the only coach Megan has ever known.
“Everything Megan has learned, I’ve learned,” Lee said.
When Megan was about 10, Lee quit his job as an auto mechanic to become a full-time instructor. He was a nomadic coach in those early days, going wherever his students played or practiced. He had a business card that read: “Traveling Golf Professional – I’ll come to you.” He mostly taught at public facilities and driving ranges, while entering Megan in local and state junior tournaments.
The family couldn’t afford to venture far from Massachusetts very often, but they made the most of USGA qualifiers in their area.
“We didn’t have the resources a lot of golf families had, and even as a child Megan knew that,” Lee said. “I think, understanding that traveling to big tournaments was difficult, she worked harder to take advantage of opportunities when she got them. She worked hard to do her best.”
Megan qualified for her first U.S. Women’s Open when she was 14 and was low amateur in the championship when she was 17. Four years ago, she helped the Americans win the U.S. Junior Solheim Cup, recording the only 5-0 record in the event.
“My dad’s crazy in love with golf, and he passed that on to me,” Megan said.
Shortly after turning 18, Megan turned pro. And shortly after that, she teed it up at the final stage of LPGA Qualifying School, where she earned her tour card in her first attempt.
Today, Khang is the 11th highest ranked American in the world (No. 45). Though she’s still looking for her first LPGA title, she is becoming a more consistent contender. Two of her five top-10 finishes this year were in major championships.
Khang’s parents won’t be alone among Hmong feeling a lot of emotion seeing Megan in red, white and blue this week.
“There’s going to be a feeling of joy,” Her said. “Of course, she’s the favorite player of a lot of juniors. We’ll take a lot of pride seeing her on that big stage. I don’t know what word to use, but I think it’s going to be awesome.”