“Undoubtedly the biggest thing to happen to Indian golf,” said Gaurav Ghei, who in 1997 became the first Indian to qualify for the British Open. “An achievement that most of us never even dreamt of.”
Atwal captured the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C., by one stroke Sunday. He is India’s first PGA Tour winner and the first Monday qualifier to win on the Tour in 24 years.
Atwal, plagued with injuries the last year, finished at 20-under 260 to win by one stroke. He led by three shots entering the final round.
He made $918,000 – more than double what he previously earned this year. The victory allows him to play on the PGA Tour for two years.
The last qualifier to win on the Tour was Fred Wadsworth at the 1986 Southern Open. Atwal had to play his way into the Wyndham after losing his Tour card last month because he was too low on the money list when his medical exemption ran out. He had injured his shoulders weightlifting.
“I do remember Atwal saying that he wanted to win on the PGA Tour,” said Ghei, who has three Asian Tour titles since turning pro in 1991. “Hats off to him for sticking it out in the U.S. on his own and doing it. It was a proud moment to see the Indian flag flying high. I hope this acts as a springboard for the game here.”
Brandon De Souza, who has organized most of the golf tournaments in India the past two decades, called it a conquest of the “last frontier.”
“Indians had already won on the Asian, European and Japanese tours, but this is a new high,” De Souza said. “I hope the government and sponsors realize the enormity of this achievement and think beyond cricket.”
Atwal’s long climb extended beyond the golf course. Three years ago, a driver trying to race him down a street in Orlando Fla., died in a crash. Atwal was cleared of wrongdoing, but the yearlong investigation exacted took a toll.
Gaganjeet Bhullar, a promising 22-year-old player on the Asian Tour, suspects the face of Indian golf is likely to shift with Atwal’s victory. He thinks the victory might result in more player exemptions.
“It could change the careers of Indian golfers and the way we look at the game,” he said. “With Indians doing well on other circuits, it was long overdue and comes as a welcome relief for us. I saw the match live on television and was thrilled at the way he managed a par on the last hole.”