Atwal’s Victory was big for the player—and for his country


Sports Illustrated

When the British colonized India, they brought tonic to ward off the malaria, and gin, cricket and golf to pass the time. When it opened in 1829, the Royal Calcutta Golf Club became the first course in the world outside the British Isles. But in the years since, it has been cricket that has stuck and gained widespread popularity throughout South Asia.

Now, nearly 200 years after “The Royal” first opened, golf is finally experiencing a major spike in popularity in India. The Asian Tour has about two dozen Indians, and it now makes two stops in India. Private golf clubs from Bangalore to Mumbai have opened their doors for junior programs, and slowly, public courses are beginning to sprout up.

Players born in India, and players whose parents and grandparents migrated from there, are giving a face to these changes. Vijay Singh, from Fiji, requires no introduction. Daniel Chopra, born to a Swedish mother and Indian father, has two PGA victories. Jeev Milkha Singh was born in India and has won in Asia and Europe, and he’s come close in America.

But on Sunday at the Wyndham Championship, Arjun Atwal became the first Indian-born player to win a PGA Tour event. It is only fitting that Atwal, who learned the game at the Royal, should be the first.

So what does this victory mean for Atwal and India? Plenty for the man. Some for the country.

Cricket is to India what football is to America: the most popular sport and a part of how the country sees itself. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t room for other sports to gain a following.

In India, golf continues to be a very exclusive sport. Play a round at the Delhi Golf Club in the nation’s capital on a Saturday morning, and you will find plenty of the city’s business elite. And its popularity is only increasing, owed partly to India’s massive economic growth in the past two decades, much of it coming in the form of a widening middle class.

And seeing players like Atwal win on such a large stage will, of course, encourage junior players in India, and perhaps others.

Tiger Woods’s arrival on the world stage was supposed to usher in a new generation of African-American golfers. It hasn’t. But it has helped produce a generation of young Asian American, Irish, Colombian and English players.

We never know who will find inspiration in Atwal’s win. A young woman in India? A kid in Florida? A Monday qualifier?

But this victory, ultimately, is about Atwal. When he made that final par putt on 18, his reaction was telling. He raised his arms to the side, pretending he might fall back. He took his hat off and scratched his head, perhaps thinking, in that split second, about all that had transpired in his life in the past several years.

The look on his face was absolute joy.

But it also seemed like the picture of pure relief. Relief for earning back his PGA Tour card, getting an invitation to Augusta and going home with a pretty nice paycheck. But perhaps most of all, it was a relief from having fallen pretty low — the car accident near his home in Florida, the shoulder injuries — and figuring out a way to win on a pretty big stage.

Atwal’s victory is why fans keep returning to their TVs on Sunday afternoons. It is a chance to see decent golf, and a chance to see a gutsy par putt change someone’s life.