The photo shows the golfer with his arm around his caddie. They’re both smiling. They should have been. Last year playing on PGA TOUR Series-China, the player, Malaysia’s Arie Irawan, and the caddie, his wife of three weeks, the former Marina Malek, traveled to Guilin, China, where Arie played well at that week’s tournament and was in contention before eventually settling for a tie for fourth. Although Marina knew very little about golf, she was ready for the challenge of caddying, she loved who she was working for that week and her “boss” was more than happy with her performance.
“I’m so lucky I have my wife here this week,” Irawan said following his first round. “This is the first time Marina is traveling and caddying for me, and she’s also taking care of the food, so that makes it easy. It helps a lot having her out there. It just makes me more calm, and that’s why I didn’t make any bogeys today. She makes me happy.”
That joy turned to sadness in a stunning way Sunday morning in Sanya, China, as Irawan never woke up, dying in his sleep in his hotel room as resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful. He was 28.
Irawan was in Sanya for another tournament, this time the Sanya Championship, the second event of the PGA TOUR Series-China season. Marina was back home in Malaysia. Irawan had missed the cut a week earlier in Chongqing and didn’t play well in Sanya, not qualifying for weekend play again. But since he was already in the resort city bordering the South China Sea, Irawan elected to stay on site in a hotel room he was sharing with fellow player Kevin Techakanokboon. His plan was to then travel to Haikou, about a 90-minute train ride on the north side of Hainan Island, for this week’s Haikou Championship.
News of his death stunned everybody who knew Irawan, an international player who travelled all over the world playing golf. Out of deference and respect, Tour officials delayed the start of the Sanya Championship final round and then ultimately cancelled it after announcing Irawan’s death.
“In the times I was with him or just around him, there was always a smile on his face—whether it was playing golf, him working out or just hanging out with friends. He always had a smile,” said Shotaro Ban, a Series member who was summoned to the scene early Sunday morning and performed CPR on Irawan before emergency personnel arrived. “I think anyone who met him or knew him realized he was an extremely genuine person. He didn’t have that much to say, but he had a great heart, and his wife is just like him. Arie exemplified what it means to be a professional golfer, a husband and a friend in the true nature. I’m just devastated by this loss.”
The PGA TOUR’s Todd Rhinehart recently returned to the United States after living in Malaysia and serving as the CIMB Classic Executive Director. He said it was in 2015 when Irawan became more than just an acquaintance. That year, the native Malaysian qualified for the tournament held in Kuala Lumpur. Irawan was one of three Malaysians in the field that week, the most in the tournament’s history.
“He was 24 at the time and was anxious and nervous to be playing in his first PGA TOUR event,” Rhinehart recalled. “Over the years, I saw and talked to him at TPC Kuala Lumpur while he was practicing as well as competing in our national qualifier for the CIMB Classic. He was not only one of Malaysia’s most-talented golfers, he was also an incredible young man who served as a passionate ambassador for junior golf in the country.”
It was in Malaysia where Irawan got his start in the game, taking up golf eight years after he was born on August 21, 1990, to Ahmad and Jeny Irawan. In 2006 and 2007, he finished runner-up at Faldo Series events in Malaysia, and as an 18-year-old, he won the Malaysian Amateur Stroke Play Championship. With those successes, he began to attract attention from U.S. college coaches interested in securing his services. Irawan elected to attend and play golf at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. While in college, Irawan earned four letters, was an Academic All-American his junior year and earned his degree in management information systems. Upon graduation, he returned to Malaysia to embark on a professional golf career.
“His death has been tough on all of us. Golf being such a tight-knit community, it really is a shock what has happened,” said veteran Benjamin Lein, who became friends with Irawan last year when he joined the Tour as a full member. In February and back in California before the start of the PGA TOUR Series-China season, Lein put together a foursome at Industry Hills Golf Club outside Los Angeles, inviting Irawan to join him and fellow Series member Gunn Charoenkul, as well as China’s Haotong Li, for a friendly game.
“It just felt like no matter where in the world we were together, he was always the same, friendly, happy Arie,” Lein noted.
Li agreed with that assessment. The 2014 PGA TOUR Series-China Player of the Year learned of Irawan’s death while preparing to play his final round at the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio. “I can’t believe it. He was such a nice guy, and I feel like it’s so unfair,” said Li, who met Irawan for the first time that week in California as Li was preparing for the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship the following week. “We had a great time playing. It was a really fun day, his wife was there and Gunn’s wife (Vichuda) was there, too. It was very comfortable. He was like an old friend even though I just met him. There’s nothing to say, really. It’s just so very sad. I couldn’t believe it when I read the news.”
“Being on the road away from family is tough, especially numerous weeks at a time. It’s always nice to have someone who points out the positive in every situation to keep us going,” Lein added. “That’s what Arie did. He was a selfless friend who always made everyone else around him better in different ways. I never was able to thank him for that, but he will forever be close to my heart.”
Like many golfers playing at the PGA TOUR China-Series level, Irawan had his ups and downs, the two missed cuts to begin the season certainly disappointing. His best season as a professional came in 2015 when he won two Asian Developmental Tour tournaments—the PGM Sime Darby Harvard Championship and the ICTSI Eagle Ridge Invitational. A shoulder injury from a motorcycle accident curtailed his momentum in 2016. He was out of action from March until mid-August that season, and he had since struggled to regain the form he showed in 2015.
“We ran into each other and talked for 10 minutes about the status of his game while I was still in Malaysia,” Rhinehart added. “He was very excited about the upcoming season on the China Series and was hoping to have a great year to qualify for the Web.com
Tour as he had spent some time in California with his swing coach and enjoyed his time there.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” Rhinehart continued. “My thoughts are about him and my prayers are with his family during this incredibly tough time.”
Perhaps Techakanokboon said it best when he described his close friend. “Arie had a lot of experience and was wise beyond his years. He really carried himself as a professional all the time. I’m going to miss him.”
PGA TOUR Series-China will honor the life of Irawan this week at the Haikou Championship, where the Tour will observe a moment of silence prior to the start of the tournament and players, staff, caddies and all others in attendance will receive an “ARIE” sticker honoring Irawan’s life.