It would have been enough for East Carolina golfer Grace Yatawara and her family to visit Nepal, a country she never expected to see.
Or to walk in the opening ceremonies representing her father’s country Sri Lanka, clad in traditional dress.
Or to play on a golf course where dozens of monkeys could scamper out of the trees at any moment and interrupt a round.
Yatawara experienced all of those things in early December as a competitor in the South Asian Games, but the kicker was the gold medal she possessed when she returned to North Carolina after the games were over. With a four-round score of 296 and a course record on her first day, Yatawara made Sri Lanka and ECU proud and capped off an unforgettable experience.
“I got a good lead on the first day, which kind of helped,” said Yatawara, who didn’t know that her opening-round mark of 69 was a record at Gokarna Forest Resort in Kathmandu until she heard some of the caddies talking about it on her last hole. “This is the first time they’ve ever had women in the South Asian Games, so I couldn’t look at scores or know what I had to shoot or anything. I was kind of going in blind.”
Her odyssey started a couple of years ago, when she started playing around on a Sri Lankan golf course near her grandmother’s home. Soon she had met the woman who was in charge of the national junior golf program, and this summer she played with candidates for Sri Lanka’s national team. Her new friends in Sri Lanka told her about the South Asian Games, a biennial multi-sport event that features athletes from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan.
When Yatawara, a Salisbury native, realized she could potentially represent Sri Lanka at the Games, she and her father had to clear the significant hurdle of making her a dual citizen of both the U.S. and Sri Lanka. The process was more complicated because her father had let his own citizenship lapse, so he had to re-establish his before Yatawara could be declared a citizen as his dependent. Even with a dedicated trip to D.C. to expedite the process, Yatawara only officially received her citizenship the day before she was scheduled to leave for Nepal.
Once she arrived and started playing, she realized the course presented challenges of its own. It was shorter and more winding than the typical American course, necessitating the use of hybrid clubs and irons to place the ball on the fairway rather than long drives. She was thankful for her Nepalese caddy and his knowledge of the layout.
“I would say, ‘A 5 wood?’ And he would say, ‘Yeah, that’s good,’” she said. “He didn’t speak a whole lot of English, but he knew what I was saying.”
And then there were the monkeys. Yatawara had heard that monkeys and deer frequented the course, and when she spotted one monkey on the seventh hole on her first day she took a picture, thinking it might be the only one she saw. But then she teed up on hole number twelve.
“There were like fifty monkeys that came out of the jungle into the fairway,” she said. “And they were like rolling around on the fairway, running around, and they weren’t scared of you at all. It’s like something you don’t think about, and something I’ll probably never see again.”
The golf portion of the event lasted for four days, but the Games lasted from December 1-10, and during that time Yatawara and her family had the opportunity to soak up Nepalese culture and to get a taste of what Olympians experience.
She was surprised to see 14,000 people gathered to watch the opening ceremonies, in which she wore a traditional sari in the colors of the Sri Lankan flag. After she won, she claimed her gold medal while standing on a podium while Sri Lanka’s national anthem played. It was an unforgettable moment for her, especially because Sri Lanka has come to mean so much to her.
“It was really cool,” she said. “And I know it was very meaningful for my dad. I am just so grateful that I could make Sri Lanka proud.”
As a senior leader on the Pirates squad, Yatawara is already an important element of the team’s upcoming spring season, but the South Asian Games triumph provides a valuable confidence boost, said first-year head coach C.C. Buford. Her coaches knew she was capable of big things, and her experience in Nepal will undoubtedly carry over to her final campaign as a Pirate.
“She told us about this event, and we wanted to give her every opportunity,” Buford said. “Our assistant coach Robbie (Fields) was out with her a lot in November, keeping her sharp. It’s wasn’t just physical preparation, but trying to speak over her, ‘This kind of tournament is where you belong.’ You could tell she was starting to believe those things. It was just like all of it came together.”