Surrounded by birds chirping and the sun playing hide-n-seek through heavy clouds like a scene out of Pleasantville, he sat down for a little touch-up for his photo shoot. The young golfer seemed laser-focused, not a single hint of perspiration. He’s done this before. He’s a professional, through and through. He’s been preparing for this transition since he was 10 years old.
In a world popularised by team sports, in cricket and football, individual accolades are hard to come by. Unless, of course, you’re a focused and determined sophomore in Alabama State University like Afnan Mahmud. The 19-year-old is beyond his years, a temperament that is matched on and off the golf course. Sitting with this future PGA professional (excuse the presumption), I was more than convinced Afnan would take Bangladesh golf to a higher international stage. The kid had a swagger about him, minus the arrogance and pomp.
Born and bred in Bangladesh, Afnan was unsurprisingly in love with football. “My brother and I were really active and in love with sports; mainly cricket and football because those were the more popular ones in Bangladesh. From first grade to fourth grade, I would want to play football all day. I grew up wanting to be a football player. I figured I could try my luck at going pro perhaps. But growing up, you realise Bangladeshi kids aren’t conditioned or trained to compete at a high-level. We just aren’t built with that type of stamina.”
Afnan was clearly aware and in-touch with the times; he knew his surroundings. “There was a point in time when my father brought me to the Army Golf Club. So I said why not, let’s give golf a try. I was good at playing every other sport so why not golf?”
He found out that it wasn’t as easy as he had thought. He actually struggled the first few months with this new found sport. His father and brother played the sport quite well, and he was not going to be the odd one out. Soon after, and months of hard work and necessary practice, he joined the junior division.
“It took me one year to get my first win in the junior category. Eventually, I also started to notice the praise and respect I was receiving from my peers and seniors alike. This encouraged me to play even better, to train harder,” Afnan spoke of his dominance, as he gradually highlighted his talents. He won around 20 trophies in between the ages of 11 and 12. By 12 he started playing with the big boys, an achievement that any young man would be proud since it usually takes a young player to reach 14 before he or she can play with established players.
He was clearly before his time, taking on better players at the senior level. He was awarded a special membership at the Kurmitola Golf Club, not to mention hailed as the ‘Player of the Year’. By 2015, he joined the national team and the frequent flyer miles started to rack up. “I started to take part in international tournaments in China, Thailand, India, and also played the British Junior Open.”
For most, generally speaking, parents want their children to get a degree and a solid desk job. Fortunately for Afnan, his parents were incredibly supportive of his pursuit for greatness in a sport that tests your patience to the limit. “My parents were really supportive. They acknowledged my talents and thought I’d be able to take this the distance. That was also a time when Siddikur Rahman was in the world stage, winning an Asian tour event, and consistently in the top 10 for five years, earning good money and the fame followed,” Afnan called back to a time when the right triggers were in place.
“Golf is an individual game. And Siddikur’s build isn’t too intimating; not that tall. So I thought, maybe I could pursue the same. I was very determined after that; I could actually take this on as a profession.” Even with this new grind, without losing complete focus on studies, he made sure his priorities were on point. He knew there needed to be a safe balance between his golf career and educational career. “In 2015, during my O-Levels, I was one of the top five amateurs involved in a major tournament. So it was always a grind. Around the same time the Bangladesh Professional Golf Association took off. It was heading towards the right direction. Everything seemed to fall into place. Even my brother recently turned professional.”
In the best of situations, Afnan made sure he wasn’t to rest on his laurels. He had no plans on settling, aiming higher was always the plan. “The best way to get better before turning professional – the next step – was to play college ball. I did my research; I knew I had to perform at the international level. In order to get into a good golf program in the States, you really need to impress the college coaches, especially if you want to play NCAA Division 1 (the highest in collegiate sports) sports.”
After gaining vital experience outside of Asia, and many accolades later, the coaches started to notice and offered more flattering scholarships. He put all the factors in play. Playing down south suited his game. The weather is warm and never snows in Alabama, giving him the chance to play all year. More importantly, he was able to play Division 1 right away. This also leads to a demanding schedule.
“In my freshman year, I played about 13 tournaments. There were some in upstate New York, Las Vegas, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, so it’s a fantastic experience playing in all those different courses. Different weather, different altitudes. This really builds your character. I wasn’t always good; in fact, I didn’t play too well in some of the tournaments. But as a team, we won a couple of events. And with only 10 players at our university, only the top 5 get to travel and play in tournaments. Fortunately, I always made that shortlist. The whole year, I didn’t miss a single tournament.”
With a keen eye into the near future, Afnan’s daily grind is his life, just like any other collegiate athlete. “I have to wake up every day at 6am. Be at the golf course at 7am. Start practicing at 7:30am until 11:30am. We hit about 150 balls, work on our short-game and if there’s still time, we get to play about nine holes. That’s pretty much our weekdays. We hit the gym on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 6pm to 7pm, and then in between, of course, is our classes in the afternoons. Fridays and Saturdays are a little easier without classes, and that is the time we have to play to qualify for upcoming tournaments.”
The game of golf takes near infinite patience in order to achieve a simple goal that 18 holes in a single course can offer. In turn, it can become unbearably frustrating when things aren’t going a player’s way. The resilience, passion and drive of Afnan is, alongside his natural-athletic skills, balanced out on the importance of mental health and meditation. The majority of the sport is based on the mental game, while the physical aspect follows in tow. The choice of clubs, the perfection of the swing and reading the course are all factors that comes from a calm and focused approach.
“Just because someone may work harder than me doesn’t necessarily bring success for them. It’s not just the hard work, you have to love what you’re doing. Success comes from that; the more you love something the better it feels while doing it,” Afnan genuinely believes incorporating this to his daily routine. This balance – the right mental game – can drive a player away from frustrating games and breaking clubs out of sheer anger.
His favourite player, Rory Mcllroy, is the perfect example of aiming higher, at his stature and what he’s achieved so far. Younger players tend to immolate or be inspired by professionals that they can relate to. Seems like Afnan is on his way to do the same – lead by example so the youth, like his younger brother, can follow in his footsteps. As individualistic the sport may be, it takes an entire team, outside the course, to contribute to a top golfer’s success. Afnan Mahmud won’t be letting either of us forget any time soon.
From his warm welcome to consistent hospitality throughout, this gentleman presents himself as a genuine athlete with all the ideal characteristics for a future golf star. Sky is the limit, as they say, just one swing at a time.