x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Atwal's remarkable triumph

The Indian golfer won his first US title, sparking celebration in a sports crazy nation, writes William Johnson.

Arjun Atwal held off a cluster of challengers to win the Wyndham Championship in North Carolina on Sunday.
Arjun Atwal held off a cluster of challengers to win the Wyndham Championship in North Carolina on Sunday.

YE Yang's conquest of Tiger Woods in a shoot-out last year for the US PGA Championship was seen as a likely catalyst for a concerted Asian attack on the world's most important golf tournaments. A year after that Korean breakthrough it is India's turn to put down the most significant of markers.

Arjun Atwal became the first player from that sport-crazy nation to celebrate victory on American soil, the experienced man from Kolkata holding off a cluster of challengers in a blanket finish to the Wyndham Championship in North Carolina on Sunday evening. Atwal, 37, who transferred his sporting passion from cricket to golf at the age of 14 and became a scratch player within two years, has enjoyed a fair amount of success on his travels.

Three European Tour titles spread over six years from 2002 were his previous career highlights to supplement his seven Asian Tour victories. For many years, though, he had dreamed about this maiden success on the toughest tour of all. And he finally pulled off that remarkable triumph against all the odds, having lost his exemption status a month ago because he had not accumulated enough prize money after returning from a shoulder injury.

That meant he had to qualify for the Greensboro event last Monday. Relieved to squeeze into the 156-man field, he celebrated with an eye-catching opening round of 61 on the first day and, despite a few alarms on the final afternoon, just managed to preserve that lead during a tense denouement. His 20-under-par total saw him edge out David Toms by a single stroke, courtesy of a nerve-wracking seven-foot par-saver on the final hole, making him the first qualifier to win a PGA event for 24 years.

Atwal's achievement sparked wild celebrations back home in a country which has been demoralised over the last few days by problems over the preparations for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games and by the disappointing current form of their one-day cricketers. Talk of a potential major champion for India to emulate the Korean honour delivered by Yang was swift to follow the confirmation of the biggest prize of Atwal's life - a US$918,000 (Dh3.3m) payday which dwarfs his other tournament earnings.

Atwal has every chance now of breaking into that exclusive club after securing an invitation into the Masters next April and a two-year exemption into the other key events worldwide. He confessed to being close to buckling under acute anxiety at the moment of reckoning, as he and seven rivals were locked together coming down the home stretch. "This has been a long-term dream of mine," he said. "Until it actually happens you keep doubting yourself and this has been the most nervous I have been in my entire life."

Atwal, who has a second home in Windermere, Florida, has been a frequent practice partner for Woods, who also has a residence in that neighbourhood. The world No 1 kept in touch with his friend by text messages, declaring that an aggregate of 21-under par would be required to realise a burning career ambition. Atwal was grateful he did not need that extra birdie at the 72nd hole to prevail in one of the tightest finishes of the year and he is now hoping that his compatriots take inspiration over what he has done over the last week.

With Jeev Milkha Singh also playing well around the Sedgefield Country Club course, India claimed the distinction of having two of its players in the top 20 of a PGA event for the first time. Singh, who has strong connections with the UAE through his association with Golf in Dubai, had been regarded as the most likely Inidan player to register that elusive PGA win, having broken into the world's top 50 in 2006 and accumulated 19 professional wins world wide.

There was a suggestion that India already had produced a winner in the United States in Daniel Chopra, who won the Ginn Sur Mer and Mercedes-Benz titles in 2007 and 2008. But Chopra, whose father is Indian, was born in Sweden, his mother's homeland, and officially represents that nation. Similarly Vijay Singh, the most famous golfer of Indian origin and a triple major winner, was born in Fiji and has represented that country throughout his career.

That means Atwal becomes the sixth Asian golfer to claim a PGA title, joining the Japanese trio of Isao Aoki, Shigeki Maruyama and Ryuji Imada and the Koreans KJ Choi and Yang. wjohnson@thenational.ae