Last week the center of the golf universe was not Isleworth, the Orlando enclave where Tiger Woods and friends were tuning up for the Masters. It was not Duluth, Ga., where the BellSouth Classic played out. No, the axis on which the PGA Tour spun were a couple of Thai restaurants in midtown Atlanta, where everybody who is anybody in the game made the scene. Nan Thai Fine Dining, a sleek, glamorous space with a flashy crowd, and the cozier, more casual Tamarind a couple of blocks away are both run by Charlie and Nan Niyomkul, the Tour's unofficial host and hostess. They are best friends to Vijay Singh and his wife, Ardena, and are renowned in golf circles for cooking the Masters past champions' dinner in 2001 when Singh was the host and he imported them to Augusta National. Photos of that memorable evening adorn the entryway to Tamarind, along with numerous candid pictures of Singh hanging out at the restaurant. He also has an enduring place of honor at Nan. The best table in the house has a shiny brass plaque advertising for whom it is perpetually reserved: vijay table.
The night before the BellSouth was scheduled to begin, Robert Allenby, Stuart Appleby and Tom Pernice were among the Tour players who dined at Nan, which is about a 20-minute drive from the tournament site, the TPC at Sugarloaf. Pernice showed up clutching a driver and a five-wood, gifts for Charlie. Many Tour players prefer the darkened intimacy of Tamarind, where the regular folks who dine alongside them appreciate entrées priced from $15 to $28. Nan has a different vibe; it received Atlanta's highest score for decor (28) in the most recent Zagat Survey, and the glam crowd there entertains itself with Dom Pérignon and Tattinger. Last Thursday night it was the preferred destination for the NBC golf talent, including Dan Hicks, Dottie Pepper and Jimmy Roberts. Swinging bachelors like Adam Scott and Sergio García are also partial to Nan, drawn by the presence of the Niyomkuls' daughter, Deedee, a 24-year-old who helps manage the restaurants. ("Sergio tried really hard, but it never went anywhere," says Deedee's 30-year-old brother, Eddie.)
The BellSouth marked the second straight week that the Niyomkuls were charged with sating Tour appetites. For years Singh has hosted a party at his home in Ponte Vedra, Fla., during the Players Championship, attracting 100 or so players, caddies, equipment reps and other Tour hangers-on. The Niyomkuls do much of the cooking. This year they drove over in Charlie's Hummer, which was loaded with about 100 pounds of chicken panang curry--Singh's favorite dish--and 120 pounds of baby lamb chops. Despite a steady drizzle throughout the party, various Tour players, undeterred, took turns huddling under an umbrella next to the barbecue, wolfing down the lamb chops as quickly as Charlie could pluck them from the grill. Frank Lickliter set an unofficial record by consuming four dozen chops in less than an hour.
Of such feasts a Cult of Niyomkul was born among Tour regulars. Surveying all the famous faces in his packed restaurants last week, Charlie, 54, was struck again by what he calls "the amazingness of fate." Singh is from Fiji, in the middle of the Pacific, yet has won 25 Tour events and nearly $40 million. The Niyomkuls' journey is almost as unlikely, which no doubt explains the bond between the families. "There is an amazing understanding and trust because of where they all have come from," says Eddie, whose son, Jedi, is Singh's godson. "Vijay grew up with nothing, like my parents, but through hard work and struggling and striving, they have lived the American dream."
For Charlie that dream began in Hua Hin, a village 200 miles north of Bangkok. His dad was a teacher, his mother a hairdresser, but through their occasional forays into the big city Charlie came to believe that working in a fancy hotel was the height of glamour. At 16 he got a job as a busboy at Bangkok's Oriental Hotel, long considered one of the world's best. He spent his breaks flirting with Nan as she helped her mother, a street vendor, hawk homemade foods.
A relentless schmoozer, Charlie quickly worked his way up to dining room captain and became friendly with Bill Larson, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army who often entertained at the Oriental. The lieutenant's connections helped Charlie land a two-year summer course in hospitality at Cornell. Charlie and Nan were married upon arriving in New York City in 1972. She worked two shifts a day as a waitress at a Howard Johnson's in Times Square to support his schooling, while Charlie toiled part time at the same restaurant, manning the soda fountain. "My English is bad now, but it was worse then," he says. "The only words I knew were chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. People would ask for a brown cow, and I'd think they wanted a hamburger."
Charlie met Singh for the first time during a sojourn home to Thailand in the early 1980s. Singh was competing in the Thailand Open, as was Niyomkul's cousin, Boonchu Rungkrit, a top amateur. Charlie still remembers his first encounter with Singh: "My God, he was a giant. You could not miss him!" They chatted easily throughout the week and promised to keep in touch, but the two inevitably lost track as Singh began his long journey to the PGA Tour.
By 1989 the Niyomkuls had reached the big time, too, as they opened Tamarind in New York City, on First Avenue. Nan's cooking and Charlie's personality cultivated a loyal following that included more than a few boldfaced names. Mayor Rudy Giuliani had his own table upstairs, and Harrison Ford and Brooke Shields were regulars. Says Charlie, "You want to know my secret? I love to kiss butt. I really do. A person walks into my restaurant, I know their whole family--'How's your nephew doing in college? Is Grandma O.K. after her surgery?' You can't fake that. It has to come from the heart."
In 1997 Eddie enrolled at Georgia State, and his parents followed him to Atlanta, lured by the climate and the slower pace. A year later they opened Tamarind. (In 1999 the Niyomkuls sold the New York City restaurant; they opened Nan in 2003.) A few months after Tamarind's debut Singh was in Atlanta for the Tour Championship. He wandered in looking for a meal, having no clue as to the identity of the proprietors. "I was stunned, he was stunned," says Charlie. "It was like, 'What are you doing here? No, what are you doing here?'" The two families have been inseparable ever since.
The 2001 past champions' dinner remains magical for both Singh and the Niyomkuls. The festivities began with a barbecue on the clubhouse porch, with Charlie cooking chicken satay and stuffed shrimp. The sit-down dinner featured a scallop and shrimp coconut soup, and then chicken panang curry, baked Chilean sea bass with three-flavor chili sauce, rack of lamb in yellow curry sauce, sea scallops in a pepper garlic sauce and sautéed vegetables, all served family-style. At every past champions' dinner the players have the option to choose from the club's regular menu, and to the mild dismay of the Niyomkuls, Jack Nicklaus ordered a plain grilled chicken breast. This brought a rebuke from Woods, whose mother is Thai. Says Charlie, "Tiger was like, 'C'mon, Jack, don't be scared. This is good food.' Jack had one bite and never stopped eating the whole night. Byron Nelson had never even seen Thai food before. He ate six or seven of the scallops, and they were huge, probably a quarter-pound each."
As the feast was winding down, Nelson said he wanted to meet the chef. Nan, who had been slaving away downstairs in the kitchen, was led to the inner sanctum of golf's manliest club. "When she walked in, Jack clapped for her, then Arnold Palmer, then everyone joined in," says Charlie. "My eyes filled with tears." Nan's priceless souvenir was to have every player at the dinner sign her chef's coat.
The Niyomkuls returned to Augusta this week, shuttling back and forth from Atlanta, 140 miles away, to deliver the dinners that fuel Singh's assaults on the Masters. This meals-on-wheels operation began in 2000, the year that Singh won his green jacket. It is a long way to go to deliver dinner, but Charlie and Nan love to make the trip.
"I believe in destiny," Charlie says. "Somehow, someway, our lives were meant to intersect with Vijay's. Your friends are your friends for life. Sometimes it just takes a while for you to find them."
"Vijay grew up with nothing, like my parents," Eddie says, "but through hard work THEY HAVE LIVED THE AMERICAN DREAM."