Winning breeds confidence

AT a time when our entire nation could see nothing beyond cricket and cricketers, Arjun Atwal made the golf fraternity sit up and take note of "an Indian" winning on the European Tour. That too, for the second time in a year.

RAKESH RAO

Arjun Atwal as a professional has come a long way. Yet he feels he has covered a very small distance.-Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM

AT a time when our entire nation could see nothing beyond cricket and cricketers, Arjun Atwal made the golf fraternity sit up and take note of "an Indian" winning on the European Tour. That too, for the second time in a year.

He ended the barren run that followed his triumph in the Caltex Singapore Open last February by leading right through the Carlsberg Malaysian Open in Kuala Lumpur for a winning tally of 24-under 260.

Challenged by World number five and Europe's top-ranked Retief Goosen, Atwal ended four strokes clear of the field to earn 169,765 euros (113,834 pounds).

``It's been a year since, I won something big. The first time I did it, I expected to win. But it, kind of, came quick. I had just seven starts on my first year on the European Tour (before winning in Singapore) which is a remarkable statistic anyway. Then I, probably expected too much through the year. I didn't push myself too hard, but did not play really well. Then to come back and win this one, kind of solidifies my belief in myself,'' summed up Atwal as he relaxed with a glass of cold coffee at the Delhi Golf Club.

``This is probably more satisfying than winning the first one. I'm really excited about it. It sunk in real soon that I had done it again,'' said Atwal who is set to cross the million-dollar mark in career earnings.

Atwal, who turns 30 this March, believes that in golf, luck and skill go hand in hand. "I guess, it is all about getting it right when you really need it. You work hard but luck does play a role,'' is what one of the finest golf ambassadors of the country had to say.

Here are some facts about Atwal which gives a fair idea of where the golfer in him stands at the moment. Currently ranked fifth on the European Tour Order of Merit with earning of 232,323 euros behind Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, Trevor Immelmann and Paul Casey. Needless to add, Atwal at present heads the Asian rankings.

A fast maturing golfer, Atwal holds the promise to provide more joyous moments-Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM

So far in this season, Atwal finished joint-11th in the BMW Asian Open, missed `cut' in the Omega Hong Kong Open, came joint-10th in Caltex Masters, 64th in the Heineken Classic, joint 21st in the ANZ Championship and joint-38th in the Johnnie Walker Classic.

Last season, Atwal finished 89th on the European Tour. After winning the Singapore Masters on February 24, he missed 13 cuts in the following 17 tournaments. His best finish was joint-53rd in the Murphy Irish Open.

``When I missed those cuts in the summer, it was very frustrating. But when I went through the whole year, I saw, in fact my wife Sona pointed out, that after all, it wasn't so bad. She said to me, `look you finished third in the Asian Tour money list, which you've never done, its your best so far'.

``That kind of got me going again. I took some time off golf. After all, I had played some 40 tournaments in a year which is more than what any golfer does. The break I took helped. It got my mind think<147,1,7>ing of confidence again. And winning always breeds confidence. When I started this year, all I was thinking was to have fun. My game was in a good enough shape. So it did not bother me about last year,'' said Atwal who plans to play more on the European Tour and also try to get his `card' for next season's USPGA Tour.

On the subject of some of the Indians breaking into overseas Tours, Atwal says, "we are the first generation of golfers who've actually gone out of the country to play on other Tours. And the kind of success rate that Jeev, Jyoti Randhawa and myself have had is pretty good for this game. This game is not as easy as it looks or sounds. To play at a certain level and to maintain that level is very, very tough. The level that Tiger Woods has maintained, nobody can maintain right now. The guys are getting better and so are the Indians. But for the Indians to catch up with the others at the moment, is truly remarkable.

``Till Jeev broke through a couple of years ago, basically no one had done anything in golf. So it is going to take some time. When our juniors see Jeev playing on the European and Japanese Tours or Jyoti Randhawa topping the Asian Tour Order of Merit or myself winning the European Tour events, they are going to see a career. I am sure things will get better and better.''

Atwal, surely in the process of becoming a role-model for the juniors at home, says his love for the game keeps him going. Atwal was exposed to the true golf ambience when he moved to the U.S. in 1987-88. He studied from class X to XII at the Clarke's High School in Long Island, New York, and then spent two years studying Liberal Arts before giving it all to golf.

He turned professional in 1995 and even won the `Rookie of the Year' award on the Indian Tour before going on to become the first Indian to play in USPGA Tour event by qualifying for the Buick Classic. In fact, he shot an opening-round four-under 67 to be two behind leader Ernie Els.

``For me, 1996 was not good enough. The years that followed were better as I was in contention for a couple of titles,'' recalls Atwal, who struck big by claiming the 1999 Indian Open in Kolkata. What more, with the money he received, Atwal realised his dream of owning a black Lexus car, worth about 50,000 dollars.

Atwal, who hails from Kolkata, now has plans to settle down in Florida to pursue his career dreams. "I realise that I should be closer to the courses where I should be playing,'' explains Atwal.

Atwal says he is greatly influenced by his family members and goes ahead to make special mention of the contribution of his childhood-friend-turned-wife Sona. "I think, Sona has brought about a big difference. She not only travels with me but takes care of everything. She is a big support especially when the going gets tough,'' acknowledges Atwal.

Atwal is also quick to add the name of Swami Niranjan of the Munger School of Yoga, in Bihar, for helping him remain "composed in pressure situations.'' He says, "if someone asks me who is my coach at the moment, I'll say he is Niranjan.''

After Sona made him realise the importance of treating golf as his job and staying "fit'' for it, Atwal has worked a lot harder on his fitness. Besides yoga, a visit to the gym is also part of his daily routine.

No wonder, in eight years as a professional, Atwal has come a long way. But he knows only too well that he has covered a very small distance. Learning with every experience, this fast-maturing golfer holds the promise to provide many more joyous moments.