Just under a year ago I watched Dale Lynch, the Australian swing guru, provide a tutorial to his latest pupil, Arjun Atwal. Atwal was at a Nationwide event in Boise, Idaho, just starting to play again after a difficult recovery from torn rotator cuffs in both shoulders. He had aggravated the injuries trying to come back too soon, and for months could not take a full swing, let along fire the club at the ball the way any successful touring pro must. Yet today, August 22, 2010, Arjun Atwal is the biggest story in golf, having just won the Wyndham Championship (nee the Greater Greensboro Open) by a shot over David Toms, with a 20 under par score of 260.
At 37, Atwal has now won for the first time on the PGA Tour, just days after losing his tour card when his medical exemptions expired without his having won enough to remain qualified for the all-exempt tour. To get into the Wyndham he first had to get through Monday qualifying at Forest Oaks, a former tournament venue. He carried the momentum of that success to a first round 61 at Sedgefield. He was tied for the lead after two rounds, three clear after the third, and one giant shot to the good after the final putt fell.
A brilliant tactical decision led to his victory, as I saw it. An errant second on the par 5 fifteenth, a hole he expected to birdie, may have contributed to his decision to hit over the green from the rough nearly 200 yards from the flag on 18, after a pulled tee shot. The relief he got from the grandstands on 15 actually set up a pretty good birdie chance, but he didn’t quite manage the up and down, leaving the birdie putt on the lip as it ran out of steam. But it may have planted the idea that there was relief available from the grandstands. After assessing his lie and the prospect of laying up where he might not have a controllable lie, he decided to fire for the grandstands on 18, then take relief and then get up and down for a winning par. He handled the decision with aplomb and fired right up the center of the green, the ball nestling as he had expected against the grandstand. There was no way to drop without hitting a slope that pushed the ball toward the green, so after two drops he was able to place the ball, giving himself an excellent lie. He then hit two decent shots, no more, but under the pressure he surely felt, both magnificently played. He dropped his putter in relief when the final putt fell.
Atwal averaged almost three fewer putts per round than the field this week, which is the number of strokes per round by which he bested the field. He putted well, of course, but he first had to hit the ball well enough to give himself birdie putts. Because he was finally playing in the last group, Arjun was subject to a slow-motion swing analysis by Peter Kostis (as well as to positive comments about his rhythm by Nick Faldo in the booth, but a clear expression of doubt about his club selection for his second on 18). Kostis noted the steadiness of Atwal’s head position, the strong release by his right side, and his wonderful tempo. With so much at stake, he played rock steady, walking calmly, almost always with a water bottle in one hand and a towel in the other, keeping well-hydrated and sticking to routines.
Arjun’s victory on the US Tour, in an event won in past years by great major champions such as Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Julius Boros, Billy Casper, Ray Floyd, and Nick Faldo (although not every victory was at Sedgefield, where Arjun won), provided a pivotal moment for Indian golf. Arjun’s home club, Royal Calcutta, the oldest golf club in the world outside the UK, is about to undergo a major renovation to restore itself to eminence in the Indian golf scene. (Ian Baker-Finch mentioned having played in Indian Opens there.) A number of new courses by prominent international design firms have elevated Indian golf in the last several years, and the Royal is determined to catch up. India’s economic rivalry with China echoes across the golf course, too, and now India has trumped China with Arjun’s victory, just a week after Wen-Chong Liang set the course record at Whistling Straits and finished tied for eighth, a brilliant result. Perhaps someday India and China will play a Ryder Cup-like event for national bragging rights. That’s where the trajectory of golf’s future is bending.