“Guess what I’ve been doing since I returned from Detroit,” Arjun Atwal asks with a laugh. “Just putting,” he says. Confidence in his short game had led to Atwal ignoring the distress signs all season and at last week’s $7.5 million Rocket Mortgage Classic, it came back to bite him. “That was a big wake-up call because everything else I did was good enough to win the tournament but the putting was so below average,” says Atwal, the only Indian to have won on the US PGA Tour.
Atwal was referring to two three-putts — and third overall — which bookended his third day in Detroit. And to the one on the final day which contributed to the slip from T18 to T45. “If I was four shots lower, I would possibly have been in the top-10, no matter how badly I played on Sunday,” he says in this exclusive interview over the phone from his home in Florida.
So, even after only his third cut in nine PGA Tour events this term, Atwal wasn’t pleased with his performance (70, 69, 66, 73) in a tournament he went in with two days of training after a two-week layoff because of rib injury while doing weights. “My goal was to get to 13-under on the third day (he went 11-under) so that I could then target 20-under eventually. So, I was disappointed with my finish,” he says.
Playing on a sponsor’s exemption, Atwal finished on 278 and took home $21,109. Had he finished on four strokes less, he would have got $131,875. It would have also got him an entry into this week’s $6.2 million Workday Charity Open. That’s where three golfers — Dylan Fritelli, Denny McCarthy and Nick Watney — are playing despite testing positive for Covid-19.
“I personally wouldn’t go out there and risk others. But if the PGA Tour has set guidelines, I am sure they have taken every safety precaution there is. I read the e-mail they have sent out. If these positive players are to be included in the field, they will play by themselves or alone. And they are not allowed in the club house. They go straight to the range and from there get into the car,” says Atwal, 47.
Atwal says he was a little worried when he got the call for Detroit. “If by chance, I tested positive, I would be away from home and quarantine in Detroit for two weeks after three-and-a-half months of being at home. That would be a thing.”
Suspended after March 8 because of the novel coronavirus, the PGA Tour resumed on June 11. “We are notified about official hotels, to stay in a bubble sort of. You cannot go to the course till you get tested. In two hours you get to know and only after you get an e-mail are you given a blue band that gives you access to the course,” says Atwal, the only Indian to have played on the Tour after it resumed.
“From thereon in everything was okay at the club.” By that Atwal meant masks being mandatory at the club house, handshakes prohibited on and off the course where caddies would wipe down flag sticks, and playing in surreal silence. In his 25th year as a professional, Atwal says he has never played a PGA Tour event where “the grandstands had been taken down.”
“We usually have thousands and thousands every day. It felt like back in my junior days or amateur days when we played in college tournaments. I really miss the crowd and you know how the American crowd is…pretty rowdy…and I like it.”
Orlando, where Atwal lives, is now a sports hub with both NBA and MLS basing competitions there, in their own “bio bubbles”. “Think our (Republican) Governor (Ron DeSantis) is taking a chance. How long will you lock everything down because the virus will still be there when you open up? Maybe everybody needs to be careful but we can go back to a bit of normal at the same time. I don’t know about the sports bit because you are talking contact sports and that is really tough. Golf is still understandable because it is outdoors and no one is touching anybody. (But) I hope it all works out because everybody and their moms would like to see sports back,” he says.
The future of the Masters is contingent upon how the PGA Tour progresses, he says. “If we can keep players, staff and volunteers safe, week in and week out, then I think the Majors will go ahead. Everybody is looking at the PGA Tour as a benchmark,” says Atwal. Scheduled in April, The British Open, one of the majors, has been cancelled but the US Open, USPGA Championship and Augusta Masters are still in the calendar.
For the next fortnight, Atwal will finetune putting at his club which didn’t shut down despite Florida having registered over 233,000 cases and 4000 deaths. “My ball striking has gone to a different level, almost to the level when I as at my peak. In all the tournaments I missed the cut, I felt really good about my game from tee to green but the putting really let me down. I don’t have a coach anymore, so I need to get my old feel back from all the tournaments that I have won — there was always one feel that I would rely on in my putting and I need to find that,” he says.
10 years of Wyndham
He is hoping to get into the 3M Open from July 23 and is a certainty at the Barracuda Championship from July 30. Atwal says he is also sure of playing the Wyndham Championship from August 13. On August 22, 2010, Atwal had won there. “I didn’t remember the date but I am looking forward to going back. Not because it is 10 years but because it reminds me of my home course: the Royal Calcutta Golf Club. It’s tree-lined and has a lot of dog legs. It is a shame they don’t make courses like that anymore.”
Playing sporadically has helped Atwal compete in a sport that is getting younger. “When I give my body a break, I can compete with any of these guys. As you get older the first two things you lose are: length, you are not as strong, and nerve. I don’t see any of those things.”
Atwal hasn’t set a time on how long he will continue but he does have a target on reaching 50. “My next goal is to win on the Seniors tour. If my body holds up, I should be good to do that at 50. I want to be the first Indian to win on the European, PGA and the Korn Ferry (PGA Feeder) Tours,” says the man with 15 career titles.