A role-model worth emulating

BRANDON DE SOUZA

EVER since Arjun Atwal turned professional in 1995, one could sense he was a prodigal talent.

AFP

What else would you call a 23-year-old, who undergoes the rigours and uncertainties of a Monday Qualifier and makes it to the main draw of a U.S. PGA Tour event? Not satisfied, he goes on to shoot a 67 on the opening day to be in second place and grabs all the headlines ahead of the leader Ernie Els the next morning. That was in the Buick Classic in 1996.

In 1995, his first year on the Asian PGA Tour, he bagged the Rookie of the Year award with some memorable performances. In the 1997 Johnnie Walker Classic in Australia, a tri-sanctioned event of the European, Australasian and the Asian PGA Tours, he shot a 67 on the opening day again to lead a quality field including Els and Greg Norman.

Before his breakthrough victory at the 1999 Wills Indian Open, there were several bursts of brilliance, only to be doused by immaturity and eagerness to excel. At least in four Asian PGA Tour events Atwal was in the lead going into the final rounds only to give way to someone else. Questions were raised about his temperament. But now that he has become the first Indian golfer and only the fourth Asian player to win a European PGA Tour event, experts of the game will be more correct in judging his achievements in future.

At the Caltex Singapore Masters, a US$900,000 event jointly sanctioned by the European and Asian PGA Tours, Atwal was rock solid during the final two rounds as he carded a five-under 67 on the penultimate day, and a bogey-free 68 on the final day to clinch the winner's cheque of $150,000. At 14-under 274, he had beaten the battle-hardened European pros and players such as Nick Faldo, Richard Green, Ian Woosnam, Thongchai Jaidee and Charlie Wi by a stunning margin of five strokes. A day later, the World rankings announced his gatecrashing into the top-200 with a jump that would have left a kangaroo embarrassed. In one week, he had moved up 117 places to 186th in the world.

There were several instances during the tournament that underlined Atwal's growing maturity and self-belief. On day three, he sank a crucial 25-feet putt for bogey on the 17th hole after hitting his first tee shot into the water. On the 18th, he drained a 15-footer birdie putt to open a one-stroke lead over his closest rival, Nick O'Hearn of Australia.

On the final day, Atwal was at pains to explain to the media that he had absolutely no butterflies in his stomach. Judging by the way he played, one can safely say he was not making up those statements. Atwal had hit that proverbial zone which sportspersons spend their entire careers searching. His hitting was like a dream as he found 16 greens in regulations, and putting was assured.

What was even more noticeable about his round was the fact that he never played safe or tried to protect his lead. The tee shot on the 10th hole, which had a difficult pin position on an island green, summed up his approach. Instead of playing to the fat of the green, he went straight for the flag and knocked it to eight feet for a birdie. Throughout the final day, he did not make any mistake, nor did he play one false shot.

Let's move on to the big question: what does the victory mean to the future of Indian golf?

It would perhaps be foolhardy to compare Atwal's triumph to India's 1983 cricket World Cup victory, or Viswanathan Anand's World chess championship triumph, but the after-effects can be of similar magnitude.

To begin with, it gives a lot of hope and motivation to the Indian players. Quite a few of them must be thinking in the lines of 'if Arjun can do it, so can we.' Even Arjun accepts that he started thinking about the European Tour after he saw Jeev making a name for himself there. Such a performance can spark off an exciting chain of events.

Secondly, it has given all youngsters and wannabe pros a role-model worth emulating. This truly happens and one can reel off previous examples.Pele starting a tradition of football in Brazil, Sunil Gavaskar inspiring a Sachin Tendulkar and guys like Virender Sehwag modelling themselves on Tendulkar. Success can spawn several clones.

For the players on the Hero Honda Indian Golf Tour, it will mean a greater amount of self belief. Both Jeev and Atwal keep talking about how some of our top guys such as Mukesh Kumar, Feroz Ali, Vijay Kumar and Shiv Prakash have the abilities and skills to perform well on the Asian PGA Tour, if they decide to come out of their comfort zone. I know for sure that Mukesh is seriously contemplating playing a few events in Asia next season.

And for someone who has beaten Atwal on a few occasions, it must be giving Mukesh a lot of food for thought.

Thanks to Atwal, the world focus has been trained on India. Till the mid 1990s, not many Europeans or the Americans knew that golf is played in our country. This would mean that the golf industry would value our country a bit more. Equipment and accessories manufacturers, who follow the U.S. and European PGA Tours very closely, would definitely realise the importance of the Indian market and try to grab a share of it. Their interest would mean lower cost of equipment and that would be welcome news for Indian golf enthusiasts.

Such victories are also going to help fuel the growth of Indian golf in other aspects. It gives the sponsors, who are currently associated with the game, an indication that the money they have spent, has produced the desired result. The media coverage would entice a few new sponsors to look at professional golf as an investment opportunity.

It would be great if the powers to be in Indian sports and the Government realise the significance of Arjun's achievement and give him the due recognition. An Arjuna Award would be a good start. Considering the way our players have been performing, it is sad that only Jeev has received the award in the last four years. In fact, no other golfer was even considered worthy of the award. Not even Jyoti Randhawa's phenomenal 2000 season when he won the National Open championships of India and Singapore and finished as the second ranked golfer in Asia, could move the jury deciding the awards.

And if the Government can go a couple of steps ahead and provide land for driving ranges and public courses in the metros, it would be the perfect icing on the cake. One needs to just visit the driving range at Siri Fort and the public course at Lado Sarai in Delhi to see and realise how popular the game has become. That would be the right impetus that golf requires in India. We can produce world-class players, and all we need is good facilities.

If all this happens, one man and his stupendous performance on February 24, 2002, can take a lot of credit for sweeping in the winds of change.