A look at the winding road that has taken 19-year-old Quebec golfer Céleste Dao from the 2017 Canada Games to the University of Georgia
2020 has been rife with unexpected challenges and lowered expectations, something that didn’t take long for Céleste Dao to recognize.
After the golfer’s freshman season at the University of Georgia was cut short in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dao returned home to Quebec, where she was forced to self-quarantine for two weeks. Things didn’t get any easier in the months that followed, as the 2017 Canada Games alumna barely left her house, which triggered her father Duc to buy her a net so she could practice by hitting balls in the yard.
Then, expected to have a busy schedule over the summer, the 19-year-old wound up playing in just two tournaments.
But, fortunately for Dao, she wasn’t alone in her efforts to keep her game sharp.
“[Me and my brother Malik] didn’t have many tournaments this summer, so we played tournaments between each other,” recalled Dao, whose 16-year-old brother Malik could be among the many golfers who will compete at the Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games. “That’s why I think we are both really good. I have someone to always compete with. We do chipping games, putting games, and I’m just lucky to have someone that always practices with me.”
Dao isn’t wrong about her brother’s skill level, nor her own.
Together, this duo from Notre-Dame-de-L'Île-Perrot have won just about every golf tournament you can win in Quebec. From their home province’s Amateur Championship to even the Quebec Games, Céleste and Malik have been there, and won that in ‘la belle province’.
That success has allowed the two of them to achieve even bigger results on the national stage. While a 16-year-old Malik was recently named to Golf Canada’s 2021 junior boys squad, the older Dao has scored a number of notable titles both here and abroad. She spent time as a member of the National Team program from 2018-19 as a junior, and her progression as one of Canada’s top young golf prospects hit its stride in 2017, when her summer schedule featured a date in Winnipeg for the 26th edition of the Canada Games.
“It was huge because Canada Games was the next step I wanted to do after I had played at the Quebec Games,” said Dao, who won one gold and two silver medals at the 2014 Quebec Games as a 13-year-old. “So, how they were selecting the team in Quebec, it was three tournaments in Quebec I had to play, which I had played a lot of them during my previous years.
“And I won all three of them [in 2017].”
Dao may have ultimately won the CJGA Quebec Junior Open, the Future Links Quebec Championship, and the Optimiste Classic Assante in 2017, but each of these victories was fiercely contested by a couple of other future NCAA golfers named Sarah-Ève Rhéaume (Furman University) and Brigitte Thibault (Fresno State University). Both of whom would cap off their summers playing alongside Dao as her Quebec teammates at the 2017 Canada Summer Games.
“I remember that year, the first tournament of the year, I won [the CJGA Quebec Junior Open] in Hawkesbury by winning a playoff against Sarah-Ève. Then, I won [the Optimiste Classic Assante] in a playoff against Brigitte, and I was pumped,” Dao laughed.
“And then, they were my teammates, and like I said, they were cool. We had no beef. It stayed on the golf course, and after we were friendly.”
The bond between these three Quebecers only grew stronger as they arrived in Winnipeg with the goal in mind of creating some Canada Games history. Since golf was introduced to the Games for the first time in 2009, all eight gold medals awarded before 2017 had been won by players and teams from British Columbia.
“Well, we knew that Quebec had never won a gold medal,” proclaimed the sophomore from Georgia. “Someone asked me [about it] and I realized that I wanted to win those two gold medals. That was my goal. And in the last round, I was a couple shots back from the individual gold medal, and I had just one focus.”
That drive in the tournament’s fourth and final round helped Dao card a 3-under 69, which allowed her to rally from behind to earn Quebec’s first-ever gold medal in golf. She also set a Canada Games record for the lowest four-round total by a female at 5-under. A performance that, along with her teammates Thibault and Rhéaume, was good enough to help Quebec win gold in the female team competition thanks to their combined score of 573 (-3) — another Canada Games record.
None of these record-breaking achievements came as a shock to Dao though. Rather, all of it was the culmination of the battles that she had with her teammates Thibault and Rhéaume over that season.
“That whole summer, it was either between me, Brigitte, or Sarah-Ève,” recounted Dao. “I think that’s why Quebec won at the end, at the Canada Games, because we had such good competition between each other.
“And on the boys’ side, Chris Vandette, I grew up with him since he [plays] at the same golf course as me at Summerlea, and we won every little tournament together since we were tiny, so it was cool that he got the gold medal at the same time [as me].”
Overall, Quebec may have swept the podium in golf, effectively setting new records in the process of ending British Columbia’s reign, but you get the feeling that these results won’t be the thing that Dao will remember most fondly about her Games experience. Rather, it will be the time that she got to spend with Thibault and Rhéaume both on and off the course in Winnipeg.
“It was really big for me,” explained Dao, whose victory at the 2017 Canada Summer Games capped off a run that saw her win six of her last 10 events.
“It was the first time I was really playing for a team. Usually, golf is individual. So, it was cool to be a part of something, having the Golf Quebec team.
“The whole day we would be practicing and playing [golf], and we would come into our little dorms, and our feet and golf shoes were so stinky and it would be stinking the whole night, and I just thought: it was cool, the fun of it, and that you can remember that.
“And we played card games really late at night, played music, and the whole team, we just bonded really really well, it was like a family.”
Although the trio parted ways following the Games, they have kept in touch over the years. Something that was particularly important to Dao, as she traveled south to the University of Georgia for her freshman season just over a year ago. Thibault, having already spent a year competing in the NCAA at Fresno State University in California, gave the younger Dao some tips on what life in college would be like before she arrived at UGA.
And, ironically, the one time their paths crossed last season in February 2020 at The Gold Rush tournament in Seal Beach, Calif., it proved to be a memorable one for the newest member of the Georgia Bulldogs.
“So, the whole season, I qualified for making the team because we have to qualify every time [for every tournament]. And for [The Gold Rush], we had a qualifying at Trump National in California, and for some reason that day, my driving was horrible,” said Dao. “I was losing balls, and I lost out for the fifth spot, and that was the first time I didn’t make the team, so I [competed as an] individual.
“And I was really mad at myself. My coach [Josh Brewer] came to see me and he’s like: ‘you know Céleste, I know you can win it, so go prove me wrong that you should have been on the team’.”
And that’s exactly what Dao did. After an opening-round 71 (-1), she turned it up a notch, scoring lower the next day to jump into first place, before a final round of 68 (-4) allowed her to best the field of 73 — edging out her Italian teammate Caterina Don by a single stroke to secure her first career NCAA victory.
“I was happy for the team because I knew they won, so we came [together], hugged, and screamed,” said Dao, whose Bulldogs bested Thibault’s Fresno State by 23 strokes to run away with The Gold Rush team title. “And then my teammates, when they saw me, they were like ‘oh my god, you won’ and they were screaming. It was a really good time.
“My coach [Brewer] was like ‘you did it, you did it, I knew you had it’.”
Dao’s score of 209 (7-under) tied the sixth-best 54-hole effort in school history, and also led to SEC Freshman of the Week honours in the week that followed. The victory was also naturally a much-needed confidence boost for the young Canadian golfer.
“It was rough during the first semester with my performance in golf,” explained Dao, who was named a Women’s Golf Coaching Association (WGCA) All-American Scholar following her freshman season. “But I think that was the turning point in California. Just to break that ice and finally shoot my scores that I usually shoot, and to have that confidence in me. It came back.”
That belief in herself has never been in doubt for much of Dao’s career. Over the years, she has added a number of notable titles to her resume that have only fueled her confidence level. These victories include the 2018 Canadian Junior Girls Championship, the 2018 Mexican Girls Championship, the 2018 Toyota World Junior Qualifier, and, maybe most impressively, she won a pair of U.S. Women’s Open qualifiers in 2018 and 2019. Her first experience at the oldest of the LPGA Tour's five major championships also led to a special moment that Dao won’t likely ever forget.
“Usually I don’t get really shy around famous players or whatever,” recounted Dao about her experience at the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open in Shoal Creek, Ala. “But when I went to register for the tournament, Brooke [Henderson] was there and I got goosebumps and I was like ‘oh my god, that’s Brooke’.
“And she came to me, and said ‘hi, how are you’ and we started talking and she asked ‘do you want to play a practice round with me?’ and I was like ‘oh my god, yes, you are so nice’.
“So, we played a practice round, and she was super nice and her sister, Brittany, was nice and sweet. They were talking about how life was on tour with my Dad, who was also a new caddy. They were giving tips to my Dad, and I just really observed how they took notes around the green and I had a good time.”
Although she didn’t compete in the U.S Women’s Open that took place this past weekend, you can bet that the 19-year-old is aiming to get back there. Like many players of her calibre, Dao is hoping to go pro some day, with the goal of making a living and winning tournaments on the LPGA Tour, much like her idol Brooke Henderson does. Moreover, she also harbors some big ambitions thanks to her time at the Canada Games.
“You know, after the Canada Games, it’s the Youth Olympics, which I did. And now I’m thinking I really want to do the Olympics” explained Dao, who placed in a tie for 13th at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “It’s a good progression, step-by-step, and I think it’s really cool that Canada has those Games because it makes dreams of athletes, like me, feel like they could happen.”
And I think many feel strongly about her chances of making those dreams into a reality in the years to come.
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