Atwal has the last laugh

IT was just the kind of finish one expects on the final day of a premier golf event.


IT was just the kind of finish one expects on the final day of a premier golf event. Lead changing hands, the rise in tension with every passing stroke, and finally, the making of the champion after a nervous putt on the final hole. For the packed gallery of the Delhi Golf Club, the $300,000 Hero Honda Masters had all the ingredients that lead to a great finish. What more, yet again, an Indian raised the crystal trophy.

Arjun Atwal, who won the Hero Honda Masters tournament at the Delhi Golf Club, in action on the final day. — Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

Arjun Atwal's nervous putt to finish the round had left Jyoti Randhawa with the task of finding a birdie on the 18th final hole to force a play-off for the $48,450 winner's cheque. Amid mounting tension, Randhawa, champion at the same course in 1998 and 1999, went for it but his birdie-putt lipped the cup and stayed out. By this time, Atwal had moved to the putting green in anticipation of a play-off. But once Randhawa missed it, Atwal was left with the title he won in 2001.

Atwal, the only Asian to win two titles on the European Tour, now has six triumphs on the Asian Tour. This latest conquest almost made sure that he stays atop the Asian Tour Order of Merit for the season, just like Randhawa who topped the list last season.

Equally significant was the fact that Atwal became the first to cross the million-dollar mark in earnings on the Asian Tour. His tally stands at a whopping $1,016,352. This season on the Asian Tour, Atwal has added $282,193.58 from six appearances, including his triumphant campaign in the Malaysian Open, a joint-sanctioned event on the European Tour. He now aims to qualify for the USPGA.

"Having achieved the milestone of becoming the first Asian to win a million dollars is nice, but what matters more is the fact that I have won the title. Winning here and sealing the Asian PGA Tour Order of Merit was foremost on my mind," said Atwal.

On his missed birdie-putt on the final hole, Jyoti Randhawa, who shared the runner-up prize, said, "That was the story of my tournament. I just did not putt well enough." — Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

Atwal started with a 69 on the opening day, when leader Chiranjeev Milkha Singh carded a 66, and felt that he had set himself up for the week ahead. Though Atwal was not very happy with his putting, what pleased him was the way he struck the ball. In was indeed his best day on the course, which had nine new greens, including seven on the back nine. On the rest of the days, he carded sub-par scores but could not match his first-round effort.

The new greens were understandably firm and fast. With the greens not `holding' to the liking of the players, many of them chose to lay up their approach shots in order. As it is, the course at the Delhi Golf Club does not encourage long drivers. The key lies in keeping the ball in the fairway, flanked by the forest. Once off the fairway, a player should be prepared to pay a heavier penalty at this course than on most others in the country. That's the reason why most players do not use their driver at all when tackling this course.

Atwal's winning tally of seven-under 281 was the result of his consistency. He did flirt with danger but produced the right shots when he needed them the most. For instance, on the final day, he came into reckoning with a 50-foot `eagle' on the eighth hole. Luckily, even bogeys on four of the next five holes did not entirely end his chances of winning as the other contenders, too, got busy dropping shots. He came up with timely birdies on the 14th and 17th holes before his final-hole par-putt proved decisive.

American Gary Rusnak followed his third-round 65, the best for the event, with a 73 and finished joint second along with Randhawa and Mexican Pablo del Olmo. — Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

Overnight leader Digvijay Singh raised visions of winning his first Asian Tour title but double-bogeys on the 13th and 14th holes and another bogey while coming in saw him tumble to the 10th spot with a 78.

Randhawa, leader at 10-under while taking the turn on the final day, double-bogeyed the 13th and gradually lost his chance of winning his fifth title on the Tour. On his missed birdie-putt on the final hole, Randhawa said, "That was the story of my tournament. I just did not putt well enough. The putt on the 18th lacked speed and that was bad luck for me and good luck for Arjun. The conditions were tough out there and Arjun tackled them the best."

Sharing the second spot with Randhawa were Mexican Pablo del Olmo and American Gary Rusnak. Olmo, repeated his first-day card of 68, including birdies on the last two holes while Rusnak followed his third-round 65, the best for the event, with a 73 and still made it for the cheques of $22,330 each.

Australia's Unho Park and Kim Felton also finished high on the leaderboard. Felton was left to rue his opening day's card of 77, which he followed with rounds of 68, 69 and 69. Park, like Randhawa, had a chance to force a play-off with Atwal on the final hole. However, Park, who needed a birdie on the final hole, messed up his second shot and landed behind the hoardings to the left of the green. Still, he was clearly lucky to escape with a bogey.

Chiranjeev Milkha Singh, who plays more on the Japanese and Nationwide Tours without any great results, led on the first two days before fading away. He putted well on the first day and raised the hopes of his sponsor Hero Honda. A par-round on the second day still kept him in the lead but successive rounds of 73 pushed him down to the shared eighth spot with Simon Yates. He suffered from food-poisoning on the penultimate evening and almost pulled out of the contest on the final morning. Still the professional in Chiranjeev kept him going and despite physical discomfort, he came up with a reasonably good finish.

Among the amateurs, Vikrant Chopra won the two-man race with a tally of 291, three strokes better than Harinder Gupta.