A Bhutanese teen takes a big swing and overcomes the odds

A Bhutanese teen takes a big swing and overcomes the odds

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Ziwang's home country has only one golf course, a nine-holer.
David Havens

No doubt you’ve already
heard about this
year’s big underdog
success stories: Boo Weekley
at the Ryder Cup, Trevor Immelman
at the Masters and
Inbee Park at the U.S. Women’s
Open.

The greatest of them all,
though, is the tale of Ziwang
Gurung, a dirt-poor 16-year-old
boy from Bhutan, the Himalayan
kingdom with only
one golf course (a nine-holer),
no stoplights and an annual
per capita income of $1,400.

Ziwang is one of 50 kids who
are part of the Bhutan Youth
Golf Association (BYGA). Six
years ago, during a sabbatical
from Sports Illustrated, I
created the BYGA while working
as the Royal Thimphu Golf
Club’s first instructor. The club
hired me to teach its 100 members,
but I had the most fun introducing
the game to kids. The
boys and girls were so enthusiastic
that I created the BYGA
so they could continue playing
after my departure.

Ziwang was one of the Royal
Thimphu caddies (they are all
young boys), who in their free
time would hit shots with bent
rebar because they had no clubs.
Ziwang, whose father, Dhan
Bahdur Gurung, is a plumber
and whose mother, Hari Maya, is
a dishwasher, made the one-hour
walk from school to the course
every day. He had a good swing,
but his game never blossomed
because he spent more time
working
and studying — he has
an A average — than playing.

That changed this spring.
The BYGA decided to send three
of its best players to Vietnam for
a qualifier for the Faldo Series,
the World Cup of junior golf,
in September. Ziwang and the
boys had four months to prepare
under the tutelage of David
Havens, a PGA instructor from
Hawaii working for the BYGA.

Havens gave the boys private
lessons and played with them at
Royal Thimphu. Ziwang’s handicap
plunged from 20 to five, and
he won two adult tournaments
at Royal Thimphu, each time receiving
a flat-screen TV.

“The
boy has God-given
athletic talent,”
says Havens. “I took him
bowling for the first time, and he
made four straight strikes.”

The trip to Vietnam was full
of firsts for Ziwang: first time
outside Thimphu, the capital;
first airplane ride; first
time in a pool; first
bike ride. The Faldo Series
host course, Ocean
Dunes Golf Club, was
also the first bona fide
18-hole layout Ziwang
had seen. But Ziwang,
a wispy (5’5”, 120 pounds)
boy who has a silky putting
stroke and uses massive lag
to belt 250-yard drives, wasn’t
intimidated.

Playing in the 12-
to 15-year-old division, Ziwang
finished second with an 18-over
82-80 — 162, earning a spot in the
Faldo Series Asia Grand Final in
China in March.

Upon returning home, Ziwang
discovered he was a celebrity.

Newspapers ran front-page
articles. Royal Thimphu selected
him for the Bhutanese squad
going to a South Asian team
championship in Bangladesh
next month. The prime minister
congratulated him.

Still Ziwang
hasn’t
lost his focus. Since
returning from Vietnam, he has
a win and a second in adult tournaments,
scoring another flatscreen
and a two-night stay at
the high-end Aman resort.

Ziwang knows his odds
of making it big are long, but
he’s undaunted. “I want to be
a shining ambassador for my
country,” says Ziwang. “After
Vietnam, my dreams are now
open. I am very excited for my
future in golf.”