Breaking a mental barrier

Tryst with history… Arjun Atwal with the Sam Snead Cup on the 18th green after winning the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro.-AP

At a time when sport in India is in the throes of several controversies, Arjun Atwal's historic victory in the $5.1 million Wyndham Championship on the PGA Tour provides the much-needed feel-good factor to the sports lovers of the country, writes Rakesh Rao.

In the past decade or so, Indian professional golf has seen a surge like no other sport in the country. The exploits of Jeev Milkha Singh, Arjun Atwal and Jyoti Randhawa combined with the rise of talents such as Shiv Kapur and Gaganjeet Bhullar have given Indians several reasons to rejoice and look beyond cricket.

From the time Ali Sher won the Indian Open in 1991 and proved that our home-grown players had it in them to beat the overseas challengers — at least at home — our golfers have been scripting success stories at regular intervals.

A glorious chapter was added to the tale when Florida-based Atwal won the $5.1 million Wyndham Championship at the Sedgefield Country Club, Greensboro (North Carolina, U.S.). The 37-year-old golfer, thus, became the first Indian and the first qualifier since 1986, and only the sixth Asian to win on the PGA Tour, the world's richest golf circuit.

Left with a seven-foot par putt on the final hole to avoid a playoff with America's David Tom, Atwal made the pressure-putt, dropped the putter and raised his hands in almost disbelief. His delight was unmistakable though.

The champion described the feeling and the moment: “My heart rate was probably like 150 at the time but my caddie told me, ‘Hey, listen, you have made enough putts to win'. I have. The last European Tour event that I won in Malaysia, I holed about a 20-footer on the last hole to get in a playoff.

“I went back to that and a couple of other putts that I've made in my life and kind of calmed myself down before I hit it. I'm just so glad that putt went in. I was really nervous over that putt. It was the most nervous I've ever been in my entire life.”

With a course-record equalling score of 61, followed by 67, 65 and 67 for a tally of 20-under 260, Atwal became one among a rare breed of champions who never trailed at the end of any of the four rounds.

As many as seven players shared the lead on the final day that started with Atwal ahead by three shots. “I had my doubts teeing up even with the lead. My swing wasn't feeling all that great. I was a little tight. Just grinded it out and got it done somehow,” said Atwal.

The triumph not only gave Atwal the winner's share of $918,000 but also helped him get back his self-belief besides the playing rights on the Tour for the next two years. He also received an invitation to make his debut at the Masters at Augusta next year.

On cloud nine…Arjun Atwal (left) and his caddie Laddie Cline celebrate on the 18th green following the winning putt.-AP

In fact, the biggest moment in the history of Indian golf could not have come at a better time, for our golfers were struggling on the European circuit while Jeev had his share of problems on the PGA Tour. Even at home, the news in the sports pages, barring Saina Nehwal's rise to world No. 2 in badminton and Tejaswini Sawant's world championship gold in shooting, reflected a gloomy picture through the month.

The increasing number of allegations of corruption against the organising committee of the Commonwealth Games and the lack of preparedness of Delhi as the host, and the shocking incident of the HRD Ministry questioning World chess champion Viswanathan Anand's citizenship status had clearly left a bad taste in the mouth. In such a scenario, Atwal's triumph, considering its magnitude, provided the much-needed feel-good factor to the sports lovers of the country.

Before Greensboro, Atwal was fighting several battles of his own. He was struggling after missing four months of the last season due to weightlifting injuries to both his shoulders.

“I had a medical (exemption) from last year, I hurt my shoulders, and the medical (exemption) ran out in Canada. I had eight events this year to make close to $600,000 (to retain the playing rights). I made like $350,000. I qualified for the U.S. Open as well, but I missed the cut at the U.S. Open and Torrey Pines by one this year, and that was it,” recalled Atwal.

After playing four days of fabulous golf, Atwal got back all, and much more than what he had lost. Now, by virtue of being a winner on the Tour, he need not bother about the Monday qualifiers to get into the events for the next two seasons.

Before the shoulder injury slowed him down considerably, a serious car accident three years ago had thrown Atwal's career out of gear. The driver of the other car that was involved in the accident — he was trying to race Atwal down a street in Orlando — succumbed to his injuries. Though Atwal was cleared of all charges, the year-long investigation emotionally drained him out.

So, how did Atwal put all his worries behind to script an epoch-making victory?

“You know, the only thing I remember about the whole week was like…as soon as I qualified, I told my caddie ‘we got nothing to lose this week. We just go out there and try and win it. Guys are going to be out there trying to secure their FedEx Cup spots or whatever. We got nothing to do. I don't have a card (playing rights) or anything. Just go out and freewheel it'. That's what I did,” said the Atwal.

In fact what Atwal did was to break a mental barrier of the Indian golfers. Jeev, who finished tied 18th with scores of 64, 68, 68 and 66 for a tally of 266 and made it the first occasion when two Indians entered the top-20 bracket in any event of the PGA Tour, had done his bit in the 2008 PGA Championship by finishing joint ninth. Jeev also has four top-10 finishes on the Tour.

This path-breaking achievement of Atwal has once again shown that Indian golfers have it in them to pull off surprises. Aspiring golfers all over the country now have another reason to counter the cynics who claim Indians are chokers on the big stage.

With the domestic tour promising to grow at a healthy pace and a couple of events, sanctioned in conjunction with the European Tour, thrown in, the Indian golfers have sufficient opportunities to continue the good work and capitalise on the gains.

* * * ATWAL FACTFILE

Born on March 20, 1973, in Asansol, Arjun Atwal started playing golf at the age of 14. He turned professional in 1995.

His golfing heroes are Greg Norman, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

First title on PGA Tour: 2010 Wyndham Championship.

First title on Nationwide Tour: 2008 Chattanooga Classic.

First title on European Tour: 2002 Carlsberg Malaysian Open.

First title on Asian Tour: 1999 Wills Open. First title on Indian Tour: 1995 DCM Open. INTERNATIONAL TITLES (9) 2010: Wyndham Championship.

2008: Chattanooga Classic, Maybank Malaysian Open.

2003: Hero Honda Masters, Caltex Singapore Masters.

2002: Carlsberg Malaysian Open. 2000: Hero Honda Masters, Star Alliance Open. 1999: Wills Indian Open. OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

The only Indian to win on the PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour.

The first qualifier in 24 years (since Fred Wadsworth won the 1986 Southern Open) to win on the PGA Tour.

The sixth Asia-born professional, after the Japanese trio of Isao Aoki, Shigeki Maruyama and Ryuji Imada, and South Koreans K. J. Choi and Y. E. Yang to win a title on the PGA Tour.

By virtue of winning the Wyndham Championship, Atwal also became the first Indian to gain a two-year exemption from playing the qualifying rounds on the PGA Tour.

The winner's cheque of $918,000 was the biggest ever won by an Indian golf professional. Among Indians, Atwal's winning share is second only to Viswanathan Anand's whopping 1.2 million euros received for retaining the World chess title earlier this year.

He became the first Indian on the Asian Tour to win the Order of Merit, in 2003. The same year, he also became the first player on the Asian PGA to surpass $1 million in career earnings after winning the Hero Honda Masters in India.

He became the first Indian, and only the fourth Asian, to win on the European Tour when he eased to a five-stroke victory in the 2003 Caltex Singapore Masters.