Greensboro, North Carolina: Arjun Atwal became the first Indian and just the sixth Asian-born player to win on the PGA Tour when he secured a one-stroke victory at the Wyndham Championship on Sunday.
Atwal joined Japanese trio Isao Aoki, Shigeki Maruyama and Ryuji Imada and South Koreans K.J. Choi and Y.E. Yang in an elite but growing club of champions from world’s most populous continent.
The 37-year-old, who now lives in Florida, sank a pressure-packed seven-foot par putt at the final hole to edge American David Toms at Sedgefield.
His final round of 67 left him on 20-under 260, ignited by an opening day 61. Toms closed with a 64.
“It was a long-time dream of mine to win out here but until it happens you keep doubting yourself and, believe me, I had my doubts teeing up today, even with a three-shot lead,” Atwal, who took up golf at the age of 14 in Calcutta, told reporters.
“Until you do it, you don’t know. My swing wasn’t feeling all that great today. It was a little tight (but) I just grinded it out and got it done somehow.”
Atwal believes his victory will resonate in his homeland.
“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be huge back home,” he said. “My in-laws called my wife yesterday and said the coverage was just unreal with me leading.
“I know there were a lot of people in India and Dubai that watched me play. I’ve had a lot of messages.”
Atwal was part of what at one stage was a seven-way tie for the lead, but he went ahead with a birdie at the 16th and came to the par-four 18th knowing a par would win.
After driving into the rough, he deliberately lashed a utility club up against the skyboxes beyond the green from where he was granted a free drop.
He hit an adequate but not great chip but caught a lucky break when fellow competitor Scott McCarron had to putt first on the same line.
“That was huge,” Atwal said. “I was really nervous over that putt. It was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my entire life. My heart rate was probably 150 at the time.”
Atwal’s friend, Tiger Woods, sent a text message on Saturday night suggesting he try to finish on 21-under.
In the end, Atwal came up one shot shy of that. Fast-finishing Toms birdied three of the final four holes for lone second place on 19-under, with Americans Justin Leonard, John Rollins and John Mallinger and Australian Michael Sim in a tie for third on 18-under.
Atwal, who did not even have exempt status on tour, only got into this event via a qualifier for four spots last Monday.
He became the first Monday qualifier to win on tour since 1986 and his rewards include $918,000, a two-year tour exemption and an invitation to next year’s Masters, a tournament he has never played.
“That will be awesome,” he said. “I was supposed to get in when I won the money list in Asia in 2003, because the No. 1 gets in from there, but they somehow gave it to the No. 2 guy, who was from China.
“That was weird. That was some kind of diplomatic relations thing going on that year.”
But Atwal is not exempt for the four-event FedEx Cup play-off series that starts on Thursday.
Not that he is too worried.
Instead, he will probably fly to Thailand to celebrate his father-in-law’s birthday.