Engineering major and ECU golfer Grace Yatawara wins South Asian Games

East Carolina University engineering student Grace Yatawara enjoys math. She’s a particular fan of low numbers.

Yatawara is a member of the ECU women’s golf team, where low scores translate to victories. In December, she won the 2019 South Asian Games in Nepal where she represented her father’s home country of Sri Lanka.

Engineering student Grace Yatawara got into golf at age 10, and is now entering her final season at ECU.

“It was awesome,” Yatawara said. “I got to see a place I probably would have never gone to. Plus, I got to meet some new people from different countries.”

The senior from Salisbury opened the tournament with a 3-under-par 69, and followed with rounds of 77, 74 and 76 to win the individual scoring title by 21 shots.

“I got a really big lead the first day, which helped me,” she said. “I was still really nervous because there were still three more days. That’s a lot of days, and there were so many things that could go wrong on that golf course. One bad shot could really mess you up, and on the second day, I started my first hole hitting it into the jungle. I thought, ‘this lead isn’t going to last long.’ But I was able to mentally stay in it. That’s something I’ve been working on a lot is the mental game.”

Yatawara and her ECU teammates are scheduled to open the spring season on Sunday when they travel to the UCF Challenge in Orlando, Florida.

“We started off really well in the beginning of last season but didn’t play as well in our last two events,” she said. “Our rank is not where we would like it to be, but we’re definitely not out of getting into (NCAA) regionals.”

As a mechanical engineering major, Yatawara said she has to fight the urge to think about the mechanics of her golf swing.

“I think it kind of hurts me sometimes how I want to think about mechanics,” she said. “Sometimes my coaches tell me to just play and not think about how your swing is going to be. I think it hurts me sometimes how much I think about it and mathematically think about it.”

Math is behind Yatawara’s choice of majors.

“I was always good at math, and I always liked math,” she said. “I like math because there are so many ways to get to the answer, so I can in a roundabout way get to the answer even if I didn’t know it at first. … I was undecided (about my major) coming in, but engineering was the clear choice.”

Yatawara said she enjoys her engineering classes, especially those that focus on safety and math, and is working on an undergraduate research project with Dr. Colleen Janeiro and Dr.
Teresa Ryan that focuses on gender among faculty in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

“It’s not entirely engineering. It’s more like statistics, but it’s still interesting,” Yatawara said. “I’ve enjoyed working with them. It’s good to work with people and work with the faculty and know how to write a research paper like that. They’re guiding me on it and letting me do most of it.”

Grace Yatawara says she didn’t like golf at first but has grown to love it.

Yatawara takes her work in the classroom seriously. Twice she has been named to the American Athletic Conference All-Academic Team in women’s golf. In high school, she was the 2016 salutatorian at Salisbury High School.

She said she came to ECU because the university offered a wide variety of degree programs and would be a good fit for her golf game.

“I felt this was a place where I could improve,” she said. “I wouldn’t be the best on the team, which I think is a good thing because it makes you work for something.”

She said her father, Chanaka Yatawara, started playing golf at age 20 when he came to the United States. He wanted his daughters, Yatawara and her older sister Lily, to play sports.

“We tried out a lot of sports like tennis, basketball, volleyball and track — all kinds of things,” she said. “Dad wanted a sport we could play our whole lives and something we could play in high school, so he got me and my sister started in golf.”

She admits she didn’t like the game at first.

“My sister really got into it when she was a freshman in high school. She was 14 and I was 10, and she started practicing a lot and dragging me along with her,” Grace Yatawara said. “I wasn’t very good, but that summer we played a ton. It was the time we got to spend together, which is why I think we’re really close now.”

Through all that golf, Grace Yatawara saw her scores drop more than 15 shots in one summer.

“I think that was when the fire got lit just because I realized there was improvement,” she said. “When you’re not so good, you don’t really like it, but when you see improvement, you think you can do better next time.”

Lily Yatawara eventually played golf at Appalachian State, while Grace excelled in high school, qualifying for four straight 1A/2A state championships and winning three before coming to ECU.
Beyond the golf course and classes, Yatawara serves as treasurer of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society at ECU, is a member of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee and is part of FUSE campus ministry.

With graduation approaching in May, Yatawara hopes for work in Charlotte, where her sister now lives, and some time to continue playing the game she now loves.

“I still want to play amateur tournaments and be competitive,” she said. “I think I won’t be able to just not play at all.”