His first big win couldn’t have come at a more appropriate setting. Arjun Atwal learnt his golf at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC) and he was a popular figure there, both with the caddies and those who held the privilege of cooling themselves with some chilled froth after a laborious round of golf in Kolkata’s sauna-like conditions. The 1999 Indian Open, in fact, threw up two potential champions, both RCGC products. Shiv Shankar Prasad Chowrasia, conveniently known as ‘SSP’, finished second to Atwal that year. Of course, SSP has gone on to become a proven winner in India, the high point of his career so far being that dream week at the Delhi Golf Club in February when he grabbed the Indian Masters (the country’s first European Tour event) right from under the noses of some really big names in golf. Among the goodies that came his way after that win was a ticket to play in Europe and these days SSP is trying to coax his golf ball into shaking off some of the dust and get accustomed to flying in cool, crisp air.
Coming back to Atwal, he had been playing professional golf for about four years when he teed it up at that Indian Open at the RCGC. Gifted with one of those fluid golf swings, which you can never tire of watching, Atwal was expected to hit the winner’s circle fairly quickly. Instead of taking the more conventional route of playing on the amateur tour and then professional golf in India before heading out, Atwal hit the Asian Tour the same year he turned professional, in 1995. He took his time settling down but after that breakthrough win in 1999 in front of family and friends on the familiar turf of the RCGC, Atwal decided that he quite liked the winning feeling. He won twice on the Asian Tour the following year—the Hero Honda Masters in Gurgaon and the Star Alliance Open in Hong Kong.
Fluid swings: Atwal practises them with the likes of Tiger Woods
Of his half-a-dozen wins on the Asian Tour till date, the latest one came in March this year at the Maybank Malaysian Open, a joint-sanctioned event with the European Tour. He had won the title in 2003 as well. If Jeev Milkha Singh is the man of many firsts in Indian golf, Atwal, 35, is right up there, too. Scroll back to 2003. When he won the Hero Honda Masters for the second time that year, Atwal became the first golfer to cross $1 million in earnings on the Asian Tour. What followed was way better when he secured playing privileges on the PGA Tour through the grueling Qualifying School. Again, he was the first Indian to get to the biggest stage in golf.
It’s been a mixed bag so far. Back problems and involvement in a car accident that left one person dead last year didn’t help. He was exonerated of car racing charges just before his second win in Malaysia. Playing on the Nationwide Tour and looking to get back to the PGA Tour, Atwal got to another big milestone a few weeks ago. In winning the Chattanooga Classic (that’s in Tennessee, not in Tamil Nadu), Atwal has become the first of his countrymen to win a professional golf event in the U.S. The result moved him to 15th place on the Nationwide’s Money List and that has also put him back amongst the big boys on the PGA Tour next year.
Talking about big boys, there is one he hangs out with at the Isleworth Country Club in Orlando, Florida. His name is Tiger Woods. Now, that’s some company when it comes to hitting golf balls.