No one, including this writer, saw it coming: here you are, tracking the progress of the top performing Indian youngsters in the pro ranks—notably Rashid Khan and Anirban Lahiri—at the season-ending (and inaugural) Dubai Open on the Asian Tour and are confronted instead with a vintage performance by a man both these golfers grew up trying to emulate. And it’s not just Lahiri and Khan who’ve marvelled at Atwal’s game: the Kolkata pro, with one of the smoothest long-flowing swings in the game (which in itself is a lovely anachronism in the modern pro game), has been a source of inspiration to an entire generation of Indian pros. Atwal was the first to break through on the vaunted USPGA Tour and remains the only countryman to have won on that premier stage (2010 Wyndham Championship).
That win too, came out of nowhere: Atwal had to grind it out through a Monday qualifier even to get into the field. But that sole victory remains Atwal’s crowning glory and the golfer—who has shifted base to Florida—has been beset with injuries for the past four years. With no playing rights on virtually any tour, Atwal relied solely on sponsor’s invites to tee it up in 2014 and virtually no one expected him to contend, let alone win.
And that list included Atwal himself: “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but to have won today is maybe an even greater feeling as it has always been my lifetime goal was to win on the PGA Tour,” said Atwal in his victory speech. “All the tournaments I played in this year were on sponsor’s invites this year. This (Dubai Open) was my fifth invite in a row actually. I’m thankful to all the sponsors that have given me invites but thank God I don’t have to do that again. I never thought that I would be asking for invites on the Asian Tour,” he added. At this point, when Atwal, who was self-admittedly considering calling time on the sport, the two-year exemption which comes with this win, is invaluable. “It’s been my dad, my wife and my whole family who has been really supportive of me. Especially during those really dark days when I really didn’t think I could play anymore. But they never let me believe that I wouldn’t be playing anymore,” he said.
Besides his family, Atwal credited his friendship with Tiger Woods for providing a support mechanism through his struggle. “You know, we’ve become like really, really close. Tiger going through his stuff and me struggling the last couple of years, we’ve been there for each other. It’s almost to the point where we’re like there’re very few friends in the world that will be there for you when you need them the most, and he’s one of them. And I’m there for him, as well,” said Atwal. While Atwal’s future plans remain sketchy, fans can expect him to tee it up regularly on the Asian Tour. There’s no ambiguity about the relevance of this win: it’s a fresh lease of life to Atwal’s playing career.
The Atwal-Tiger friendship provided a fitting backdrop to the former world number one’s tryst with India in 2014 which hit the headlines when Hero Motor’s Pawan Munjal signed up Woods as ‘Global Corporate Partner,’—a four-year deal reportedly fetching TW $32 million (R250 crore) and decided to sponsor a $3.5 million (R21 crore) event on the PGA Tour, now christened the Hero World Challenge, for four years. That cumulative $46 million deal made Hero Motors second only to Nike when it comes to Tiger’s sponsors. It’s also the biggest endorsement deal for the golf star since his very public sex scandal in 2008 and the biggest sports endorsement deal in cricket-crazed India, ever.
Even though the deal got more headlines in the Indian media than any other golf-related news in 2014, the year marked a determined foray by Indian players on the Asian stage. Anirban Lahiri was the outright performer of the year with his two wins: first at the CIMB Niaga Indonesian Masters which he won courtesy a huge eagle putt on the 72nd hole; and then the Venetian Macau Open which he won despite trailing Scott Hend of Australia by four shots at one point in the final round. Lahiri nearly won again at the Thailand Golf Championship—a victory that would have propelled him to the top of the order-of-merit on the Asian Tour for 2014—before faltering at the end. Lahiri managed to put that disappointment behind him and produce top-quality golf at the European Tour Q-school to earn his card for 2015, marking his transition to a bigger stage. He finished second to David Lipsky on the Asian Tour’s order-of merit with earnings of more than half a million dollars.
And what about the doughty Rashid Khan! After coming close on so many occasions, the DGC lad won his first Asian Tour title at the SAIL-SBI Open on home soil. Khan, who’s often been criticised by detractors for his diminutive frame and high ball-flight (deemed as unsuitable for anywhere except the sub-continent) then proceeded to give a fitting riposte by winning the Chiangmai Golf Classic presented by PTT—his first win on foreign shores as a pro. Khan finished tenth on the Asian Tour’s order-of merit.
Khan’s win at SAIL-SBI was as noteworthy as veteran Jyoti Randhawa’s runner-up effort in the event, marking a welcome return to form for one of the stalwarts of Indian golf. The results were a fantastic rejoinder to SSP Chowrasia’s win at the Panasonic Open at the Delhi Golf Club in the preceding week. Chowrasia, who has steadfastly insisted on honing his skills on the tough European Tour in spite of not having a full-coverage sponsor, hadn’t had a win since his biggest triumph—the tri-sanctioned Avantha Masters—in 2011. Second-place honours were shared by an Indian—Rahil Gangjee—who tied with Sri Lankan Mithun Pereira. It was the first time in Asian Tour’s history that Indian players took the top two spots in successive weeks. All in all, 2014 was quite a watershed year for Indian golf, and going forward this is the perfect time for the government to get into the act and create sorely-needed infrastructure to widen the base of players in the country. That’s what we’d hope to see in 2015.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game