| ATWAL: ‘Nowhere near my peak right now’
New Delhi: Arjun Atwal was stuck in the woods, with trees on one side and a lake on the other, at the 18th hole in the second round of the 1996 Sabah Masters in Malaysia. It seemed there was nowhere to go.
Unfazed, Atwal faced the pin, pulled out a three-wood and swung hard. The ball bounced three times off the surface of the water and stopped at the other side, just short of the green. It was not just a fantastic golf shot but also a tremendous display of self-belief and fortitude.
The 30-year-old Atwal, who grew up in Calcutta and Long Island, New York, is the only Indian to win a tournament on the European PGA Tour.
He did it in Singapore last year and, for good measure, did it again in February at the Malaysian Open when he beat South African Retief Goosen by four shots.
Atwal is the runaway leader in Asia this season, ninth on the European money list and looking squarely at his dream of playing on the US Tour.
“I always wanted to play professional golf in America, that’s where all the action is,” Atwal said during last week’s Indian Open where he finished joint sixth.
“I’ve got an invitation to play in a $5.5-million tournament this year. If I get a few more, I could make the card by earning enough money in the US over the next few months.”
But not long ago, Atwal was known as Indian golf’s “nearly man”.
Born into a wealthy family of miners and builders, Atwal started playing golf at the age of 14 at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club. He loved the game but dreams of a professional career started only after he moved to the Clarke High School in Long Island, where home was just 15 minutes from the Bethpage Black, venue of last year’s US Open.
“I made the college team in Nassau and got really involved in the game travelling with (my) coach,” Atwal said. “When I turned 22, I thought ‘why not turn pro'’.”
Atwal gave up a golf scholarship at Rollins College in Orlando, went to the Asian Tour’s qualifying school in Thailand in 1995 and started his professional career. He began his rookie season with a bang, finishing joint third at the Philippine Classic, but it was a long time before the wins started to come.
“I used to play well but fall away on Saturday and Sunday,” Atwal said.“Something kept coming in the way every time I was in contention and it got very frustrating. When you don’t win for a while, doubts start creeping in.”
He was fifth at the Asia Pacific Masters in Indonesia and fourth at the Indian Masters in 1997, second in Guam, third in Malaysia and fourth again at the Indian Masters in 1998. The nearly tag was starting to stick.
But Atwal broke free of it in Calcutta the following year at the Indian Open, lifting his maiden Asian title on the very course where he had first picked up a golf club. “I was relieved more than thrilled. Until you get a victory you can’t tell if it’s in you to be a champion,” Atwal said.
After that, the floodgates opened. He won the Indian Masters in 1999 in the northern town of Gurgaon and another victory at the Star Alliance Open in Hong Kong the next week was the icing on the cake.
But winning at the European Tour event in Singapore last year finally meant he had reached a higher level.
“Even after Singapore, I was restless for a whole year,” he said.“I missed eight cuts in a row and began to feel I just had to win again to prove I was no one-title wonder.”
Now, after the Malaysian triumph has silenced critics firmly and finally, Atwal is eyeing a top-10 finish in Europe this year. “If I’ve done it twice, I can do it again,” Atwal said. “I just have to believe in myself. I’ve got to believe I’ll make it to the US Tour and then win a major.”
But, as Atwal himself says, he still has a long way to go. “I’m nowhere near my peak right now. My swing is not even 40 per cent of what I want it to be. I’ll take at least two to three years to get things right.”
Atwal, passionate about cars, has a Lexus GS 400 parked in Long Island and his short-term dream is to own a Mercedes SLK Roadster.
He tied the knot with childhood sweetheart Sona Bhalla after winning his first title and is off to Phuket next week to celebrate their third wedding anniversary.
After that, it is back to the grind, starting with the Spanish Open in Tenerife at the end of the month.
He does not mind being on the road for most of the year. “I don’t have a problem ordering room service seven days a week in my hotel room but when my wife is around it sure helps,” Atwal said.
“As long as there are cheeseburgers and golf, I’m at home anywhere.”