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The man who kept walking

Arjun Atwal’s victory at the PGA Tour came after many detours and dead-ends. The boy from Kolkata’s journey to the top. Robin Bose writes.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2010 22:48 IST
Robin Bose

Trials and tribulations can crush a spirit. Some people never recover. Others simply wait for the storm to blow over. Arjun Atwal doesn’t subscribe to the strategy of waiting for the storm to disappear. The strapping 6 feet 1 inch golfer has always preferred to meet the situation headlong.

After losing his card (see box) on the PGA Tour last month, Atwal found himself at a crossroad. The doubts did not hover for long though. Instead of taking the safe road that led to the Europ-

ean Tour — on which he had an exemption till the end of this year courtesy the Maybank Malaysian Open win in 2008 — he chose to drive through the rockier terrain. “I didn’t do that [play on the European Tour]. My goal is to be here [the US],” said Atwal.

The words might have sounded pompous then, but a closer look gives us his insight.

Rubbing shoulders with the best on the world’s premier golf tour was a dream he had begun to nurture when he shifted base from Kolkata’s uptown Alipore area to join school in the United States. The desire grew stronger as he sharpened his intellect and playing skills at the Nassau Community College, from where he specialised in Liberal Arts.

There was another reason for his reluctance to move to Europe. “Tell you what,” he would say with a grin, “given an option, I would any day choose the US and Asia. The cold in Europe and Japan isn’t to my liking.”

The choice made, Atwal got to work on the uphill mission. He knew if he earned enough to be ranked higher than 125th, the 2011 Tour card was his. A finish between 125th-149th would have brought with it a chance to play in the final stage of the Tour School qualifiers.

He may have been saying, “I don’t have a card, I don’t have anything. Just go there and free-wheel it.”

But deep within, Atwal knew, as he joined the main field at the Wyndham Championships as a last-minute Monday qualifier, that he had it in him to restore his reputation as the man with many firsts in Indian golf.

After all, as a relative greenhorn, he had shaken off the tag of “nearly-man” that he had earned on the Asian Tour by winning the Indian Open in 1999 at home.

Atwal could not have asked for a more appropriate setting to break the jinx than the historic Royal Calcutta Golf Club, a venue where he watched his industrialist father, Harvinder, play, before he took the plunge himself.

The US bestowed upon Atwal the honour of being the first Indian to qualify for the PGA Tour in 2004. America tried him on several counts too. Be it the fatal high-speed car crash in 2007 that led to a year-long court battle, relegation to the second-tier Nationwide Tour the ensuing year or the career-threatening muscle tears in both shoulders last year, he was tested on various levels but the whole experience also heightened his ability to take knocks and rebound.

Teeing off at the Sedgefield Country Club last Thursday and the Tour card nowhere on the horizon, Atwal knew another trial was in store. He took one step at a time. The opening round of 61 saw him equal the course record and gain outright lead in the $ 5.1 million event. Day 2 went off well too but slight creases had appeared on his forehead as Atwal had to share the lead.

The leaderboard was swinging like a yo-yo but the man held on and ended the penultimate day with a three-stroke lead. Atwal was living a “long cherished dream.” But until it happened, he doubted himself. Even the cushion, which ultimately shrank to a stroke, was of little help. On the 72nd hole, the ball was asking to be sunk into the cup, but a “scrambled mind” was holding him back.

A couple of firm but soothing words from the caddie settled the jangled nerves and the putt rolled in beautifully. After wiping the sweat-drenched head, he raised his arms to finally register and acknowledge that he was the champion.

For the sizeable turnout, he was the first Monday qualifier to win in 24 years. For Atwal, it was a reinforcement of his ability to take what life gives him on his chin, keep walking and swing one back at life.