Inspiring journey of the Bangladeshi Tiger Woods
August 11, 2016
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
- Siddikur Rahman was the only golfer to carry his country's flag in the Opening Ceremonies. (Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)
RIO DE JANEIRO – In the mid-1990s, a mother in Bangladesh sent her 10-year-old son to work in hopes of funding his education. While the father performed odd jobs, his income was not enough, as the family lived a meager existence. They were just glad to be safe; the father had once described their little village as the “criminals’ den.” One local newspaper simply called it a slum.
The son, the second-youngest of four brothers, eventually found a job as a forecaddie at the nearby golf club. He made some money but eventually lost interest in next-level education. In a country mad about cricket, he had become smitten by golf.
Two decades later, that boy – now 31 years old – walked onto the floor of the Maracana Stadium, the world-famous soccer venue that, on this night, had become the epicenter of the sporting universe. Behind him were a handful of countrymen. In his right hand was a six-foot pole, and at the far end was his nation’s flag. A worldwide TV audience estimated at 3 billion watched as he stepped into the spotlight.
No other men’s golfer was so honored.
Siddikur Rahman’s journey to carrying his nation’s flag during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympics is an unlikely one. It’s also an inspiring one, the kind that usually bubbles to the surface during the Olympics, when the chase for glory need not always manifest itself into a gold medal. Just competing often speaks volumes.
“Even though it’s a fairly new sport in Bangladesh, we’re really proud of this,” Rahman said after a practice round this week. “It’s a huge achievement for me, my country and for golf.”
Rahman appearance in the men’s tournament starting Thursday at the Olympic Golf Course is one he hopes will grow the game in Bangladesh. The challenge is daunting. His country is the size of New York. Unlike the Empire State, which has 818 golf courses, Bangladesh has just 15 … and 10 of those are nine-holers.
But then, Rahman – currently a member of the Asian Tour -- has been defeating the odds his entire career.Rahman ranks 316th in the latest World Ranking. (Mike McAllister/PGA TOUR)
Pro golfers are not supposed to come from Bangladesh. Certainly his parents didn’t expect it. They wanted Siddikur to earn a degree, find a good job. But once he started working at Kurmitola Golf Club in Dhaka, there was no stopping him.
At 16, he earned a spot on the Bangladesh national team, using borrowed clubs. In the process, he became more serious about golf – and less serious about his studies.
“When I was a kid, I played more golf instead of going to school,” he said. “I’d miss school and I’d come to the course. My parents would say, you should study, you shouldn’t do that. But they didn’t force me.”
As an amateur, he won 12 events. Meanwhile, when he wasn’t playing golf, he was watching it on TV. This was about the time the Tiger Woods Era began, but for the guy who would one day be nicknamed “the Bengal Tiger,” it was another golfer who captured his interest. On another tour. And the other gender.
“I used to love watching Se Ri Pak,” Rahman said of the legendary LPGA player, who has 39 career wins. “I really like her. My favorite player.”
The LPGA, in fact, became the tour that Rahman followed the most.
“I like their swing,” he explains. “They swing easy. The men swing really fast, so I couldn’t catch that on TV. I really love to see the LPGA tournaments. That’s what I like the most.
“My swing is similar. A very soft swing. I’m the shortest hitter on the Asian Tour (actually, 102nd out of 104 players, with an average of about 260 yards). I don’t know -- somehow I can’t create more power myself.
“That’s why I love to see LPGA tournaments so I can correct my swing.”
In 2005, Rahman turned pro, joining the Professional Golf Tour of India. It was a milestone event, as he become the first Bangladeshi golfer to turn pro. Five years later, he was on the Asian Tour, becoming the first Bangladesh golfer to win an event on that tour. He won again three years after that.
By then, golf had become an Olympic sport for the first time since 1904. Suddenly, an opportunity that Rahman never previous considered opened up. If he could get into the top 60 of the International Golf Federation rankings, he could earn a spot in Rio.
In mid-May of this year, he took second place at the Mauritius Open. That vaulted him inside the bubble. When his status was confirmed two months later, he became the first athlete from Bangladesh to qualify for the Olympics on merit. The previous 36 Olympic athletes representing Bangladesh had been wild-card entries, which are available from the International Olympic Committee in hopes of encouraging sports participation in developing countries.
No one gave Rahman his spot. He earned it.
When it came time for Bangladesh’s National Olympic Committee to choose its flag bearer, the choice was obvious.
“Can’t express myself,” Rahman said. “I feel honored and really grateful.”
Back home, the family has long come to embrace their golf-playing son. Rahman remembers when he was selected for the national team. His parents didn’t say anything at the time. In this instance, silence was a sign of approval. “Maybe they thought, OK, now I have a good future in golf,” he said. “After that, I kept continuing to play and they did support me.”
The parents also support the other brothers, each of whom also has an interest in golf. One works at a club. The other two are pros. Siddikur, of course, is the most successful, having surpassed the seven-figure mark in earnings.
It all makes for lively discussion at the dinner table. Rahman and his extended family live in the same complex, and usually have upwards of 15 people for dinner. The family homes, says Rahman, are fairly close to his old neighborhood but a much nicer place. Still, there are times he misses the old neighborhood. That humble upbringing keeps him humble. And hungry for success.
“Honestly, I do remember my past,” he said. “Missing my old days, even though that was a struggle time – I really love to remember all those things, what I did, what I’m doing now. Really inspires me.”
Will it be enough inspiration to carry him to an Olympic medal this week? It seems doubtful. He ranks 316th in the latest world rankings, and his lack of length off the tee may doom him against the field’s notable names. Rahman has never been close to playing against a field of this caliber.
Plus, there’s a little matter of Bangladesh’s Olympic history. At 156 million people, it’s the most populous country in the world never to have won an Olympic medal.
Even so, during a nine-hole practice round this week, he was 4 under. Perhaps there is a Cinderella story emerging from Bangladesh.
“Honestly, I don’t have any expectations,” Rahman said. “Don’t want to pressure myself. But I’ll give it my best.”
For now, he’s just grateful to have four days of practice on the same course. He said that’s a new thing for him. He usually gets just two at the tournaments he plays. Meanwhile, his family will be waiting for reports on his progress, his brothers eager to see how he matches up against some of golf’s biggest names.
But he’s not sure his parents comprehend the magnitude of what he’s doing this week as golf returns to the Olympic Games for the first time in 112 years. “They know I am a good player and I get to travel over the world,” he said. “But they cannot really imagine my activities. They don’t have the ability to understand all of this.”
No doubt he’ll have plenty of stories to tell once he returns from Brazil. That’s if he can get a word in edgewise. With 15 people at the dinner table, the conversation no doubt gets a little crowded.