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 flat-screen 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."
GOLF PLUS will next appear as a special issue on Dec. 16.