Determination pays off for Atwal at Wyndham

Arjun Atwal celebrates after winning the Wyndham Championship.

Arjun Atwal celebrates after winning the Wyndham Championship.

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – When Arjun Atwal made a 7-foot par to clinch his first PGA Tour victory, he leaned his head back and stretched his arms out in a pose reminiscent of the Bob Marley “Uprising” album cover – minus, the dreadlocks, of course.

And if Atwal’s victory was put to music, Marley’s “Redemption Song” would make a fine title.

Atwal shot 20-under 260 at the Wyndham Championship to become the first native-born Indian player to win on Tour.

Indeed, Atwal cut his teeth playing professionally in India, winning four times. His next stop was the Asian Tour, where he tells tales of long bus rides, of tournaments where only 67 players entered the field and 63 made the cut, and the time he finished second at an event in Korea and tournament officials paid him in cash.

“They gave me $60,000 in a bag,” he said. “Trust me, I kept my eye on my carry-on the whole way home.”

Atwal finished as the Asian Tour’s rookie of the year in 1995. He won their several times and by 2003, he led its Order of Merit. He graduated to the European Tour and won there, too.

But the PGA Tour was his dream ever since at age 14, encouraged by his father, Bindi, he started playing golf at Royal Calcutta Golf Club.

“The PGA Tour was untouchable to us,” Atwal said.

He made it there, earning his card in 2003, and shot a 64 to slip into a playoff at the 2005 BellSouth Classic. Keeping his card proved more difficult. Atwal regained his Tour privileges through the Nationwide Tour in 2008, but last spring he injured his rotator cuff on both shoulders. The right one was worse than the left. To avoid surgery, he experimented with acupuncture in India, but when it didn’t help he got a cortisone shot. He missed four months from early March 2009 until mid-July of that year. Like many before him, he grew impatient and returned too soon.

“I couldn’t hit it out of my shadow when I came back,” he said.

Atwal missed six straight cuts and earned $21,000. He began the season playing on a minor medical exemption, with just eight events to earn $586,007 to gain status for the remainder of the season. When he failed to do so at the RBC Canadian Open, he lost his Tour eligibility.

At this point, Atwal had a choice to make. Stillfully-exempt on the European Tour from his victory in 2008, Atwal could’ve gone and played there.

“I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “My main goal is to play here.”

So he asked for sponsor’s invites into Fall Series events and hoped for the best. The word from his agent suggested it didn’t look good.

“I’m going to Monday qualify every week and see how it goes,” he decided.

Atwal gave new life to the old cliché of taking the road less traveled. Here’s just one adventure from his rocky road back to Tour status. Earlier this month, Atwal and his caddie set off to Monday qualify for the Turning Stone Resort Championship. When his Sunday flight following the Greenbrier Classic was delayed and it appeared inevitable he would miss his connection, Atwal and his caddied drove overnight from Roanoke, Va., to central New York, slept in the parking lot, “took a nice, cold shower,” in the words of his caddie, Laddie Cline, and placed peg in the ground Monday morning at 8 a.m. They posted 68, hung around all day, lost a 4-for-1 playoff and, fit to be tied, headed off to play a Nationwide Tour event.

“Arjun is a fighter,” said Jeev Milkha Singh. “He did not get down after his injury last year and losing his status on the Tour.”

Then there is his involvement in 2007 in a fatal car accident in Orlando in which he was reportedly drag racing in his BMW (Atwal was cleared of wrongdoing in 2008). A year ago at the RBC Canadian Open, Atwal’s ace won him a BMW convertible and writers noted the irony. Atwal was disgusted that someone would make this connection. A life was lost, he said. When asked to revisit the topic at the Wyndham he said, “It was no one’s fault. It was an accident. That was it.”

Atwal showed up to the Wyndham’s Monday qualifier and hit 17 greens at Forest Oaks Golf Club and shot 67 to earn a spot in the field. Playing with a nothing-to-lose attitude, he opened with a 61, held the lead after 36 holes, and carried a three-stroke advantage into the final round. On a day when he said he never truly trusted his swing and admitted to feeling tight, Atwal outlasted major winners Lucas Glover, David Toms and Justin Leonard.

Glover threw a nifty 29 on the front nine to overtake Atwal before faltering down the stretch. Toms birdied three of the last four holes and shot 64 to take the clubhouse lead at 19 under. Leonard surged into contention with five birdies on the back nine and grabbed sole possession of the lead until a costly bogey at the 18th hole.

Atwal answered with birdies of his own on Nos. 14 and 16. Before his winning putt, his caddie reminded him of all the big putts he had made before. So as he lined up the biggest putt of his life – feeling “the most nervous he’d ever been in his whole entire life” – Atwal remembered how he holed a 20-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff when he won the 2008 Maybank Malaysian Open. And he made it to become the first Monday qualifier to win since Fred Wadsworth at the 1986 Southern Open.

For his victory, Atwal earned his first trip to the Masters, a spot in the SBS Championship in Hawaii, and a two-year exemption through 2012. Because he is not a Tour member, Atwal is ineligible to compete in the upcoming four-event FedEx Cup Playoffs.

At the greenside trophy ceremony Atwal said, “I’m not going to the FedEx Cup Playoffs. I’m going to Disney World.”

Spectators whooped and cheered as Atwal mocked the old Super Bowl MVP commercials. Then, for good measure, he added, “Because that’s where I live.”

When he gets home to Orlando, Fla., he can rest a little easier. Winners sleep in on Monday.

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