Local golf: Yatawara wins gold medals at S. Asian Games

Published 11:55 pm Saturday, December 21, 2019

By Mike London


SALISBURY — The number of college students coming home for the holidays is pretty large.

But East Carolina University engineering student Grace Yatawara probably is the only one riding around with two gold medals in the car.

Yatawara’s hectic December has included winning individual and team gold medals for golf in the South Asian Games. She represented Sri Lanka, her father’s homeland.

The senior set a course record in Nepal, trouncing the competition from nations such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan and defying course hazards that included jungles and tribes of monkeys. That was in addition to the standard sand and water.

“I’m sure this was the biggest and most important thing I’ve ever done,” Yatawara said. “To represent an entire country is such an awesome thing. It was an experience like no other. On the first tee, on the first day, I knew this was different, I had a totally different feeling than anything I’ve ever felt on a golf course.”

Chanaka Yatawara, Grace’s father, came to the United States from Sri Lanka, an island nation south of India, for his college education. In a freshman chemistry class at Old Dominion University, he met his future wife, Gayle. They raised their daughters, Lily and Grace, in Salisbury. Both girls became instrumental in great golf seasons for Salisbury High. Lily was good enough to play for Appalachian State. Grace followed her at SHS, played for three Salisbury state championship teams (2012-14) and won two individual 1A/2A state championships (2014-15) before signing with East Carolina.

At ECU, Yatawara has excelled in the classroom, but she’s experienced ups and downs on the course. It’s competitive just to get into the top five at East Carolina, but she’s participated in 21 events and has a career stroke average under 77.  She turned in a good fall season, with a stroke average of 75.73.

“I didn’t have any super-bad rounds,” Yatawara said. “But I always want to be more consistent.”

She’s always maintained close ties with her Sri Lankan heritage. Her grandparents made trips to the U.S. for visits as she was growing up, and the Yatawaras have made the 24-hour trip to Sri Lanka at least every two years to visit, so the girls always thought of Sri Lanka as a second home country. They’re more than comfortable there, and when Chanaka’s father died a few years ago, the journeys to see Grace and Liily’s grandmother in Sri Lanka became more frequent.

Grace welcomed the opportunity to represent Sri Lanka and its 21 million people, in the South Asian Games, which are held on a three-year cycle.

She met the other two members of Sri Lanka’s women’s golf team last summer. Thuhashini Selvaratnam is a veteran. She was born in Sri Lanka, but went to Arizona State for college and stayed in Arizona after graduating. The third player is young. Tania Balasuriya is Sri Lanka’s top junior.

“We got to play together over the summer and got to know each other,” Yatawara said.

The three women trained at Sri Lanka’s finest course in the capital city of Colombo before departing for the South Asian Games. The golf segment of the Games was held at the Gokarna Forest Resort in Kathmandu, Nepal.

“The trip to get there from Sri Lanka took nine hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” Yatawara said. “We had to fly to Delhi (India) first, and then go on to Nepal. The course was not what I expected, at all. It’s the Himalayas, so I was expecting lots of hills, but this course was down in a valley.”

Yatawara took with her the two  charms that are always with her on a golf course.

The first — a cross necklace.

The second — a coordinates necklace with the inscription — 35.6710° N, 80.4742° W. That’s the longitude and latitude of Salisbury, N.C.  She was 8,000 miles from Salisbury, but, through that necklace, her hometown was still with her.

The course was relatively short for someone who drives the ball like Yatawara.

Well-wishers advised her to watch out for the monkeys. She thought they were kidding, but when she arrived at the first tee box, there was a monkey sitting there.

“I thought it might be the only I saw, so I took a picture of it,” Yatawara said.

She had to laugh about that later. On the back nine, she witnessed a troop of 50 monkeys strolling right out of the jungle and crossing the fairway.

Despite the monkey sighting, she played incredibly well that first day, shooting 3-under 69. No woman had ever shot 69 at Gokarna, but adrenaline and concentration came together, and she had her family there to cheer her on.

“While the course wasn’t that long, it was challenging and tight, and you had to think about placement on every shot,” Yatawara said. “You couldn’t allow yourself to get out of it mentally, not even for one shot.”

There was no standard out of bounds. There were lots of spotters, and if  Yatawara hit one to the fringes of the jungle, they located it, and she played it.

At the end of that first day, she had to pinch herself. She held an 11-shot lead on the field and Sri Lanka was in first place on the team leaderboard.

“That was a great experience,” Yatawara said. “Leading a tournament, having that pressure on me, was a position I hadn’t been in for a long while. I didn’t take the lead for granted. I knew there were still three rounds to go, and so much could happen. I knew I couldn’t let up.”

She began the second round by smacking her tee shot deep into the jungle, where even the army of spotters couldn’t help.

She still managed a 76 to stay on top.

She would lead the four-day event wire-to-wire, shooting 74 and 77 on the final two days.

Her 8-over 296 won her the gold medal by a whopping 21 strokes. She was equally excited that Sri Lanka grabbed the team gold by 32 strokes. Her teammate, Selvaratnam, won the bronze medal.

The best was yet to come. The podium. Gold medals around her neck. The Sri Lankan flag being raised on a pole and the national anthem playing.

“I’m grateful I was able to make Sri Lanka proud,” Yatawara said. “For my father and my grandmother, I’m sure it meant even more. My one regret is that my grandfather who passed away — he was a stellar athlete in Sri Lanka and always encouraged me to practice – wasn’t able to see it.”

Yatawara and her teammates were welcomed as heroes when they returned to Sri Lanka. They had accounted for two of the nation’s 23 gold medals from the Games.

A captain in the Sri Lankan army was at the airport to greet them and escort them to a round of interviews. There were lots of photos and lots of flowers.

But it wasn’t long before Yatawara had to start thinking about the final leg of her trip. From Sri Lanka to Qatar. From Qatar to Philadelphia. And then back to ECU for final exams.

” I got back on a Sunday night and studied on Monday,” Yatawara said. “I had an exam on Tuesday and two more on Thursday.”

She had her first two exam grades back in a matter of days. Believe it or not, she aced both of them.   

She’s on track to graduate this spring with an engineering degree and she’ll be wrapping up her collegiate golf career, as well.  The “spring” season for ECU’s team starts on Feb. 2, in  Orlando.

“I’ll be ready to go,” Yatawara said. “This experience with  the South Asian Games has pumped me up. My confidence was down a little bit, but this was a boost.”

She hopes her gold medals will be important as far as inspiring young golfers in Sri Lanka, especially female golfers.

It’s also possible this won’t be a unique experience for her. She can see herself competing again for Sri Lanka, especially when the time comes for Sri Lanka to serve as the host country for the South Asian Games.             

Her favorite golf experience had been the hole-in-one she made in a U.S. Open Qualifier in 2016 in Sanford, N.C.

But now she has a new one.

A bigger one.

This time she did something that lifted 21 million people.

Those two gold medals, wherever she decides to display them, will allow her to remember that medal podium, that waving flag, that soaring anthem, for a lifetime.