THE SPORTING FIRE THAT LIT SO BRIGHTLY WHEN ARJUN ATWAL TURNED PROFESSIONAL SOME 25 YEARS AGO IS SHOWING NO SIGNS OF FLICKERING AS THE INDIAN LEGEND PREPARES TO WRITE A NEW CHAPTER IN HIS ILLUSTRIOUS GOLF LIFE
Atwal has deservedly earned legendary stature in India and Asia due to his trailblazing success on golf’s finest fairways, which includes becoming the first Indian to play and subsequently triumph on the game’s biggest stage, the PGA Tour.
He is also a man of many firsts. Atwal was the first from the sub-continent to win a European Tour event (2002), the foremost golfer to earn over US$1 million in career earnings on the Asian Tour (2003) and the first to taste victory on the Korn Ferry Tour (2008).
For all his easy-going and laidback demeanour, the Indian, now 47 years young, is still as ambitious as he was at 22 when he joined the play-for-pay ranks. While he believes he can still compete at the highest level – he briefly held the co-lead during the third round of the recent Rocket Mortgage Classic – he has set more lofty goals by stating his intention to win on PGA Tour Champions when he becomes eligible for the over-50 circuit.
“By the time I’m 50 I’m ready to play (PGA Tour) Champions. I want to win on this tour as well. I still have the desire to win as long my body can still perform. If those things are there, then I will play. As of right now, I’m feeling great,” said Atwal, who resides in Windermere, Florida with his family.
The former Asian No 1 says he has never felt this good in a long time. Throughout a career which saw him garner eight Asian Tour wins including three European Tour co-sanctioned titles and the region’s Order of Merit crown, he endured some difficult times with debilitating back and shoulder injuries. In 231 PGA Tour events, Atwal enjoyed one win, 11 top-10s and 29 top-25s which his overall report card could have indicated better stats if not for those setbacks.
Hence at the turn of a new decade, Atwal made a pledge to get fitter, trimmer and stronger. When he showed up in Detroit last month, he had shed 15 pounds to bring his weight back to 185 pounds which was the number he tipped on the scales in his PGA Tour debut in 2004. With his wife Sona’s help, he now consumes only healthy food, stopped the casual alcohol intake, works out at the gym four times a week and diligently practices yoga to ensure he remains supple and agile.
“This year, I made a commitment to get fitter. I wanted to see how fit I could be and also to get rid of the aches and pains. I’ve been working out and I feel good … the legs feel stronger and I’ve added swing speed. I’m hitting the ball longer than in the last five to six years. I don’t remember how long ago I’ve felt like this,” said Atwal, who pounded a drive of 342 yards at the Rocket Mortgage for his longest one to date in 2020.
This month marks exactly 10 years since Atwal wrote a slice of Asian golf history by winning the Wyndham Championship. As a Monday qualifier, he led from start to finish to become India’s first winner on the PGA Tour, fulfilling his American dream which began when he attended high school in New York.
Atwal though is not the sort of guy who would dwell in past successes, preferring to look ahead towards new challenges. “I don’t think about it (the win),” he said. “It’s so long ago. Once it’s over, it’s over. I’m just looking forward to competing, and I got excited to practice again with a purpose when I got into the Rocket Mortgage Classic (where he finished tied 45th).
“There’s definitely pride in what I’ve done in my career. Playing on the Asian Tour taught me a lot and it’s a matter of pride to be the first Indian to win on the PGA Tour, Korn Ferry Tour, European Tour … that’s not bad. I’ve always dreamt about playing here and this is the dream. Hopefully I can become the first Indian to win on Champions as well. There may be generations doing much more after me but they can’t take away being the first. It’s pretty cool coming from a country of 1.3 billion people.”
Atwal’s two sons, 16-year-old Krishen and Shiva, 12, may not quite follow in his golf footsteps despite being introduced to the game when they were young. At 6’5” and 6’1” in height respectively, and still growing, both seem intent on playing basketball and will have their dad’s full encouragement should they harbour dreams of playing in the NBA.
“The older boy has decided to play only basketball while the younger one is playing both sports but because he’s a big boy, basketball comes easier. I’m not going to push them and my advice is to have discipline and work ethics. They’ve seen their dad work hard and I think they get it. When I’m home, I’ve got the discipline and the ethics. I think they will learn by example,” Atwal said proudly.
“That’s my legacy to my kids.”