Need any more evidence that golf has gone global? At the Honda Classic, your champion was an American who toiled for years in Japan. A week later at Bay Hill, the leader heading into the weekend was a powerful little Japanese man who plays in America. He competed in Saturday’s final pairing alongside an Irishman – but alas, they were upstaged that day by an Aussie.
Last year’s money list was led by a man born in Fiji. The Masters just extended an invite to a pro from China. A Korean-born New Zealander owned the first-round lead in last week’s PGA European Tour event – played in Singapore. And in the women’s game today, it’s a Swede at the top. Think the Scots had any earthly idea what they were starting when they began to whack balls around a field with wooden sticks so many centuries ago?
Golf’s latest testament to global warming is a lanky, cordial, smooth-swinging lad from India by the name of Arjun Atwal, the first man from his country to ply his trade here. Previously, the only time the terms golf and Calcutta ever worked their way into a single conversation was at a member-guest pairings party. Now we actually have a card-carrying PGA Tour member who hails from there. Small world. In golf, it’s getting smaller all the time.
In a sport in which many talented young players lack status to play anywhere, Atwal owns cards on four tours this season: Asia, Japan, European and the PGA Tour, where he is focusing his efforts.
Atwal turned 31 last Saturday and his official designation, for now, is relatively unknown PGA Tour rookie. Don’t be fooled. He’s more seasoned than curry. Though he’s the only player on Tour from India, Atwal doesn’t view himself as a trailblazer.
“I guess when it’s all said and done, maybe I will,” he said. “Right now, I don’t feel that way. I just feel like an individual who is out here competing.”
Thus far, his season has been the typical rookie mix, becoming acclimated to new cities and learning new golf courses. The latter stands as his biggest challenge. And like any other rookie who comes out of Qualifying School and has somewhat limited playing options, he plans to play most any week he can, though he’s already in three events – Memorial, British Open and WGC-American Express – most rookies only dream of playing.
Atwal was delighted to get into Bay Hill last week, but missed the cut by a shot after rounds of 72-73. His nemisis was poor putting, though he scared the hole from 70 feet to nearly pull off an improbable, Woodsian birdie from the trees at his final hole. But his second consecutive missed cut meant a weekend off, so he gathered his things and made the short drive to his new home in Celebration just down Interstate 4.
Atwal already has shown a knack for having an extra gear when he needs to be clutch. At the second stage of Q-School – golf’s version of no-man’s land – last fall, he stumbled to a triple bogey on his second hole during the final round. A few holes later, he holed an 8-iron from 168 yards for eagle, and he advanced to the finals on the number when he two-putted from 110 feet at his final hole.
“It was unbelievable,” said fellow Q-School grad Dan Olsen. “Arjun’s got no dog in him. That guy’s hard. He’d crawl on his hands and knees across broken glass to finish . . . and that type of guy is a pain to play against.”
Seve Ballesteros told Atwal his well-rounded game will lead to a major championship one day. On the Asian PGA Tour, he became the first player to earn $1 million in a season, and he’s won six times around the world, including twice in Europe, where he was the first Indian to win. The highlight? Beating Retief Goosen head to head to win the Malaysian Open last February. “That’s the one that really gave me belief in myself,” he said.
The son of a building contractor, Atwal was taught by his father that if you want something in life, you must work hard for it. He left home for boarding school at age 8 and moved to Long Island, N.Y., to live with his older brother, Govind, when he was 16. Arjun had been playing golf for a couple of years in India and already was a scratch player when he arrived in the states. Larry Dell Aquila, longtime coach at Long Island’s Nassau Community College, pulled off a heist the day he signed young Atwal.
It didn’t take him long to discover he had a special player on his hands. The first round of his first tournament – a 36-hole event at Bethpage Black that included players from two dozen Division I programs – Atwal staggered to a 78. His play had been untidy, his course management and decisions poor. When coach and player spoke after the round, Atwal said, “Coach, don’t worry. I’m going to shoot 65 tomorrow and win this thing.” Atwal went out the following day, shot 66 and won the tournament going away. “Afterward, not in a bragging way,” recalls Dell Aquila, “Arjun says to me, ‘Coach, I told you I could do it.’ That’s been his attitude since Day 1.”
Atwal won back-to-back NJCAA Division III individual titles in 1993-94, and he and the coach stay in close contact to this day. When Atwal won in Europe, Dell Aquila’s phone would ring at 4 a.m. In 35 years at Nassau, Dell Aquila has coached roughly 150 players who have entered the golf business in some capacity. Asked if Atwal was his best player, he quickly answers affirmatively, then asks to rephrase. “Best person, then best player,” says the coach.
Two months ago, when Atwal stepped to the first tee at the Sony Open to hit his first tee shot as a PGA Tour pro, his nerves were trumped by emotions of unbridled joy. “This is my dream,” he said, “to come from India to play here. Every kid who plays golf seriously in India wants to play here.”
Atwal’s wide-eyed innocence and zest are a refreshing addition to a Tour that does an awful lot of collective whining while competing for weekly purses of $5 million and up. Before the year is out, Atwal wants to get Greg Norman’s autograph.
Before too long, Norman may be asking for his.