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Golfer Arjun Atwal Shines as India's First US PGA Tour Winner

  • Teresa Sullivan

Arjun Atwal, of India, holds the Sam Snead Cup on the 18th green after winning the Wyndham Championship golf tournament in Greensboro, N.C, 22 Aug 2010

Arjun Atwal, of India, holds the Sam Snead Cup on the 18th green after winning the Wyndham Championship golf tournament in Greensboro, N.C, 22 Aug 2010

The 2010 U.S. Professional Golfers Association Tour season ended last Sunday with American Jim Furyk winning the FedEx Cup championship. The lucrative four-tournament playoff event capped a year peaked with big wins for some and even bigger losses for others. The season also provided some with an opportunity for redemption - to eclipse the grim events of the recent past. Arjun Atwal of India is such a player. The 37-year-old golfer finished his roller coaster ride of a season on a record-setting high note.

Difficult road

Arjun Atwal hit a low point in July when he lost his U.S. PGA Tour playing card, which ended his qualifying exemption status and his eligibility to compete in the PGA's lucrative season-ending FedEx Cup playoffs. A month later, Atwal's season was over, and he was at home in Orlando, Florida, contemplating whether to watch the first FedEx Cup playoff tournament on television or maybe take his wife and two young sons to the nearby Disney World theme park. But having just won his first PGA Tour title, the 16-year veteran was not dwelling on the fact he had not qualified for the playoffs.

Atwal's one-stroke victory at the 2010 Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina August 22 had made him the first Indian-born player to win a U.S. PGA event, and the first Monday qualifier in 24 years to claim a Tour title. It also netted him twice what he earned in all of 2009 and gave him a two-year Tour exemption. The Calcutta native told VOA Sports he is delighted about his ground-breaking win and looking forward to next year.

"I definitely want to do this again, win more," said Atwal. "And I'm looking forward to being in contention again, definitely. Definitely. I'm going to be playing in my first Masters next year, and that will be exciting - all the big tournaments, as well, so it should be fun, should be a lot of fun."

Prelude to success

At the Wyndham Championship, Atwal opened with a dazzling 9-under-par, 61 on the course at the Sedgefield Country Club to take a first round lead. He led or shared the top of the leaderboard through most of the next two rounds, but entered the final 18 holes three strokes ahead of the field. At one point during the fourth round, he and six other players shared the best score. But Atwal held his ground, shook off his nerves and made par on his final shot of the final hole to earn a spot in the record books.

Atwal said he was glad the Wyndham tournament was televised live in India where his parents were watching, even though it was the middle of the night there.

"All the people that called me - even the media - or my friends and family - they were all up watching until like 2:30 in the morning in India, and I think that's just beautiful, because I know I'm not the most popular name here in America, but in India it would be great to have all the people in India watch this and maybe inspire a few to come out and pursue their dreams in golf, or whatever it is," he said.

Who is he?

No stranger to success and setting golf records, Atwal said he started his professional golfing career in 1994. He was named the Asian Tour's rookie of the year in 1995. He won a number of tournaments in India before going on to win titles and raise the profile of Indian golfers on the Asian and European Tours and the second tier PGA Nationwide Tour. In 2002, Arjun became the first Indian golfer to win on the European Tour. The following year, he won the 2003 Asian Tour Order of Merit title and became the first Asian player to claim two European Tour wins.

But playing on the U.S. PGA Tour was what he had yearned for since his youth in India. The years of hard work paid off when Atwal earned his first Tour card in 2003, the same year he settled in the United States. He landed in the top-25 at several PGA events in 2004, and in 2005 Atwal had a career-best five top-10 U.S. finishes.

After failure, victory

Arjun's advice to young people in India is simple: work hard and follow your dreams.

"If you have a dream, to do whatever, and it's not just golf - in any sport in India - just to follow it, and not let anyone tell you any different," said Atwal. "And whatever work you put into it is what you're going to get out of it, so that's what I've always believed in. The harder you work, the better it gets. And that would be my message to all the kids over there."

But Atwal has faced lean times in recent years, with trouble following him both on and off the golf course. In 2007, he was involved in a fatal car accident that reports say occurred when another driver was trying to drag race Atwal on a road in Orlando, Florida. After a year-long investigation, he was cleared of any wrongdoing in the other driver's death, but the apparent stress took a toll on his game.

In 2009, weight training injuries to both shoulders left Atwal sidelined for four months before he returned too soon and played poorly as a result. His game continued to deteriorate until he missed six consecutive tournament cuts and lost his Tour card when he did not earn enough to remain in the required top 125 on the PGA's money list.

Love of the game

Now, a rejuvenated Atwal shrugged off missing the 2010 FedEx Cup playoffs, and said he expects to finish the year playing most of the fall series events in the United States as well as some tournaments overseas. He might even play in India.

"The Indian Open is on in the first week in December, so I would love to play in that, but we'll see how the rest of the schedule fits in with that, so I haven't decided yet, but I would love to," Atwal said.

In his youth, Atwal said he played soccer and cricket like many children in India, but shifted his focus solely on golf not long after his father introduced him to the sport when he was 14 years old.

"My dad took me to our club there, in Calcutta, India," said Atwal. "And on weekends, he would spend time with me, and he taught me how to play, and that's basically how I got started."

And Atwal fell in love with the game.

"Once I started playing golf, I basically had no time for anything else because I got 'the bug,' you know, like they say, and I just wanted to practice and get better, and see how good I could get," he said.

Atwal said his parents were thrilled about his big win at the 2010 Wyndham Championship, especially his dad.

"He always talked about me playing on the PGA Tour and winning out here," said Arjun Atwal. "And then, I came close so many times, in '05 and in '06. I had, maybe, lost in a playoff, and three putted the last hole on one of the tournaments to not get in the playoff, so I came close, but this was just awesome for them."

Sounds like it was pretty awesome for Arjun Atwal, too.