On Sunday at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, Arjun Atwal brought a big smile to the world's second most populous country by becoming the first person born in India to win a PGA Tour event. Atwal's victory was also exciting for me, because cheering for him brought back a flood of happy memories.
I first met Atwal in October 1995 in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. It was the middle of the afternoon, and I had just landed at Tribhuvan International Airport. A few weeks earlier, I had gotten married, and now my new wife, Carrie Cohen, and I were beginning our honeymoon. We were going to do the Annapurna Sanctuary trek in northwest Nepal, and then we would fly to the Philippines to spend a few days snorkeling and lounging around a resort on a small, remote island.
As we walked out of Tribhuvan airport, the first thing we saw was a golf course. The green for the final hole at Royal Nepal is literally across the street from the main entrance to the airport. A bizarre juxtaposition, to be sure, but that's life in third-world countries. I was thrilled, especially because I saw the infrastructure scoreboards, players with tour bags, fans, etc. for what appeared to be a professional tournament. Carrie and I crossed the street, dragged our backpacks under some ropes and stood behind the green to watch players finish their rounds.
I spoke to some of the players. They told me the event was the Nepal Open, a satellite event on the Asian tour. The guys shared hilarious stories about traveling to Nepal, lugging their gear around the wild streets of Kathmandu and enjoying the city's vibrant nightlife. One of the players I spoke to was Atwal. He'd just turned pro. He spoke about his dream of playing on the PGA Tour. He talked about growing up in Calcutta, playing with some of the wild and crazy golfers at Royal Calcutta, and how he'd played golf while attending high school and junior college on Long Island.
Fast forward one year. I was on the putting green at Westchester Country Club during the Buick Classic, and whom did I see? Atwal. He had been shuttling between India and the U.S. for various tournaments, and he had Monday-qualified for the Buick. After the first round, Atwal was two shots off the lead; he'd shot a four-under 67 and was tied with Greg Norman. Atwal had vivid and happy memories of the Nepal Open, and he recalled meeting me. I was awestruck at the serendipitous meeting. (Atwal faded with rounds of 76-73-72 to finish 43rd.)
Fast forward to 2004. I was at Royal Calcutta playing with many of the characters who'd grown up playing with Atwal. They spoke reverently about Atwal how great he could chip and putt, how hard he practiced, how nice a guy he was. What most intrigued me was the roughhewn setting of the course. It sat amid a hardcore Indian slum. The course was a decent layout, but it was in poor condition, and I got the sense from my hosts that the conditions had never, in their lifetimes, been too great. So it was mighty impressive that Atwal could hone a Tour-level game in that setting.
Rarely do I root for a player while watching golf. I just enjoy seeing the best compete. But I've always pulled for Atwal, hoping that the friendly young man I met on the other side of the planet on my honeymoon would somebody realize his dream. Today, his dream came true, and I had a very big smile.