Chopra Coming into His Own

By Associated PressJanuary 7, 2008, 5:00 pm
2007 Mercedes Benz ChampionshipKAPALUA, Hawaii -- Daniel Chopra was born in Sweden and raised in India, the product of two cultures that has served him well in his travels around the globe to prove himself as a world-class golfer.
 
Three languages roll easily from his tongue. Chopra recalls one practice round on the PGA TOUR when his group included either Arjun Atwal or Jeev Milkha Singh -- both good friends from India -- along with a Swedish player.
 
'I'll speak Swedish to him, Indian to him and English to my caddie,' he said, nodding for emphasis. 'And I remember we had some American guy playing with us and he was like, 'What the hell just happened?''
 
Victories translate in any language, but even Chopra must be wondering about the last few months of his life.
 
Even though he stands out from his heritage and his spiked blond hair, Chopra was an afterthought in the world of golf. Most of his 11 trophies came from the minor leagues, with his biggest two on the Asian Tour against weak fields. It wasn't until Chopra was 31 that he joined the PGA TOUR, and he didn't crack the top 50 on the money list for three years.
 
Chopra went 132 starts before he finally won the Ginn sur Mer Classic at Tesoro against a watered-down field in the Fall Series.
 
The bigger step came Sunday at the winners-only Mercedes-Benz Championship, where his victims include four major champions and seven of the top 15 players in the world. And when he defeated Steve Stricker in a four-hole playoff at Kapalua, it was his second PGA TOUR victory in his last three starts.
 
What just happened?
 
'I don't know,' Chopra said, a purple lei draped around his neck. 'You just need to get comfortable with the situation. I most certainly felt 10 times more comfortable going out there today than I did that final round at Tesoro. I felt more in control. And I'm sure the next time I'm in contention, I'll be even more comfortable.'
 
Chopra referenced the career path of David Duval, a runner-up seven times until he won his first event at Kingsmill toward the end of the 1997 season. Then he won at Disney, and made it three in a row at the TOUR Championship. Duval went on to stardom, and within 18 months had become No. 1 in the world.
 
It's too early to determine whether Chopra has that kind of game, but he can no longer be overlooked.
 
He started the year at No. 120 in the world ranking, and his victory moved him up to No. 61, in range of making his first World Golf Championship in Arizona next month. He'll make his debut in the Masters -- he has only played four majors so far. And most importantly, he moved up to No. 2 in the Ryder Cup standings.
 
Chopra has never given the Ryder Cup much thought, noting that a U.S.-based player from Europe has to rely mainly on world ranking points, and he doesn't consider himself in the same league as players such as Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia or Henrik Stenson.
 
But the European system doesn't consider the world ranking, rather ranking points earned since September.
 
Chopra has shown a complete game, and he starts the 2008 on equal footing. The more big tournaments he plays, the more ranking points available, the greater chance he has of making the team.
 
'I have to be among the very elite that Europe has in order to make the team, which is a tough road,' Chopra said. 'But I'm in position now. We'll see what happens.'
 
It didn't hurt that European captain Nick Faldo had a seat in the booth for his season-opening victory doing his TV duties.
 
Chopra wasn't spectacular off the tee, which doesn't matter on a Plantation Course where the fairways are bigger than an L.A. freeway. What surely impressed Faldo was his putting. According to PGA TOUR statistics, he made nine putts over 20 feet.
 
And he probably should have ended the playoff much earlier than four holes.
 
Four times, Chopra hit putts that he thought were pure. A 12-footer on the 18th hole in regulation stopped an inch short. A 7-footer for birdie on the 18th in a playoff somehow stayed out to the right. His 25-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole was a blade of grass away from falling, much like his 25-foot eagle putt on the fourth and final extra hole.
 
That one didn't matter because Stricker, who took only eight putts on the final holes of regulation and birdied three of the last four, missed the par-5 ninth green to the left, chipped hot some 15 feet by the cup and missed his birdie.
 
It culminated a week of calm and confidence for Chopra, whose worldwide travels have broadened his experience in life and on the golf course. Kapalua requires imagination with its shifting winds and greens that are large, contoured and break severely with the grain.
 
'I was able to use my imagination to read putts. It just comes naturally to me,' Chopra said. 'I can see the slopes, I can see the grain, I can see where the wind is going, and all my years of playing all over the world on different types of greens helps me.'
 
Few players are as worldly as Chopra.
 
Born to a Swedish mother and Indian father, he lived six years in Sweden before a brief stop in England, and his family thought it would be a good idea to experience his heritage in India. When it was time to move back, he didn't want to leave.
 
'The fact I grew up in Indian, my thinking might be a bit more Indian,' Chopra said. 'I think the physical side of me might be a little more Swedish. I feel right down the middle.'
 
And when he's on the course, does he feel more Swedish or more Indian?
 
'Between the ropes, you're just playing golf,' he said. 'You're trying to the do the best you can.'
 
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