Tour pro Arjun Atwal moves on after a high-speed traffic accident 17 months ago

Monday July 28th, 2008
Arjun Atwal played golf with Tiger Woods the day of the accident.
Erica Larsen

Date of Interview: March 10, 2007
Time of Interview: 8:38 p.m.
Location: Orlando Office of the Florida Highway Patrol

\nPolice Officer: For the record, please state your full name.
Arjun Singh Atwal.

\nAnd you're a professional golfer for the PGA. Is that correct?
PGA Tour, yes.

\nPGA Tour. Sorry.
Yes.

\nOkay. Tell me what you observed and what happened today.
Well, basically, I made a left out of Chase Road onto 535.

\nOkay.
And I had a white Mercedes behind me. And he got really close to me when we were...we were definitely going over 55 miles an hour.

\nWhat lane was this?
I was in the left lane.

\nLeft lane?
And he was behind me.

\nOkay.
And then we got around to this corner right here, like just before this turn...

\nOkay.
...and he went into the right lane.

\nOkay.
And the next thing I know, I see him in our rearview mirror. He's going off this road. And that's where I hit my brakes up here somewhere.

\nOkay.
And my car — well, I panicked, because I saw his car go off the road...I hit my brakes. And my car skidded and went off...into the grass. Hit a few of those trees on the way...

\nOkay.
...and got to the other side of the road. Like, ended up on the other side. And I lost control of my car.

\nOkay. And did you see where it...at the time you were losing control of your car, did you see where his car was going at the time?
No. No. I couldn't.

\nOkay.
'Cause I was — my car was basically spinning.

\nOkay. And you said you panicked. So did you hit the gas or hit the brake hard or jerk the wheel?
No, I — I tried to just, you know, like, turn...

\nVeer to the left?
Yeah. You know, 'cause I saw him go this way. So I thought, you know, you know, there must be something wrong...

\nSomething was terribly wrong. As Atwal's car spun across the median, the Mercedes flew 30 feet off an embankment before cartwheeling over a barbed wire fence, through a cow pasture and into a tree that ripped out the vehicle's rear axle. When the car finally came to rest on another barbed wire fence nearly 300 yards from where the driver had lost control, it looked as though it had been steamrolled. The driver's-side seatbelt was still buckled and a series of air bags had deployed, but the driver was contorted and bleeding from his ears. Forty minutes later he was dead.

\nThose are the unassailable facts in this tragedy. But how it began and how it has evolved are the elements and emotions that only the survivor can know.

\nThis is his story.

\n\nOn the afternoon of March 10, 2007, four hours before a Florida Highway Patrol officer questioned 33-year-old Arjun Atwal about a traffic accident he was involved in just west of Orlando, Atwal was playing golf with Tiger Woods. The two were playing a friendly nine-hole match, as they occasionally do, at Isleworth Country Club, their exclusive hangout in Windermere, Fla. Atwal loves playing with Woods. Merely watching him on the range, Atwal says, opens his eyes to new shots, new possibilities. Call it improvement by osmosis.

\nNot that Atwal doesn't have game. Best known for becoming, in 2004, the first Indian to earn full playing privileges on the PGA Tour, the globetrotting Atwal has ridden a mint putting stroke from Royal Calcutta Golf Club, where he picked up golf at 14; to suburban New York City, where as a high-school transplant on Long Island he cut his teeth at Bethpage Black; to success on just about every major golf tour. In 2005, his standout season, Atwal led the PGA Tour in putting and made the cut in all but one of his 17 starts, including a playoff appearance at the BellSouth Classic. A year later, the birdies had dried up, and by 2007 Atwal was back on the Nationwide Tour, fighting for a return ticket to the good life.

\nWhen his March 10 practice session with Woods ended, Atwal slid into his silver BMW M6 coupe, fastened his seat belt and followed the familiar five-mile route to the home he shared with his 2-year-old son Krishen and his wife, Sona, who was then pregnant with their second son, Shivo. As Atwal turned onto County Route 535, a flat, two-lane stretch of roadway lined by gated communities and farmland — and, police say, a popular stretch for street racing — he sped southbound on a straightaway; police later said Atwal was driving at least 94 mph when he spun out. Soon after a white Mercedes CLS was quickly gaining on him.

\nAtwal says he was going closer to 85 mph, but either way, witnesses told police, it didn't appear the two cars were out for a leisurely drive. "The Mercedes was trying to catch up with the BMW," said Elizabeth Schneider, who was traveling southbound on 535 behind the two cars. "And then it proceeded, I guess, into a race. Well, I know into a race, because [after] they passed a PT Cruiser on the right...they started accelerating with their speed and they took off. It was...it was on after that."

\nThe driver of the other car was a fellow Isleworth member named John Noah Park, 49, a Korean-born video company executive. Atwal says he never met him.

\nPark was on his way to meet his family for dinner in nearby Lake Buena Vista. He, too, had children. He, too, drove a high-performance car. He, too, was speeding — up to 100 mph, the police later estimated. As he neared Atwal's car, Park swung his vehicle into the right lane and pulled nearly even with Atwal as they hit a bend in the road. At that moment, approximately 5:30 p.m., Atwal glanced into his rearview mirror and witnessed the beginning of a horrifying scene that would leave Park pinned under his windshield and Atwal in a prolonged state of sorrow, frustration and wrenching uncertainty.

\nAnd then what happened after the crash? Did you go up to the car or...
Yeah. First, you know, I got out of my car...

\nRight.
...thinking, you know, to see if my car was okay. And then I saw another guy who was — who was coming on the other side of the road.

\nOkay.
And he asked me, "Are you okay?" I said, "Yeah. I'm fine, you know."

\nOkay.
So then I walked across and saw, you know, that there were people standing here and that, you know, they were — I saw the car, and I was like, "Oh, my, God," you know. I didn't know what to, you know, do — or anything.

\nWhat do you do? What can you do? You wait for the police, tell them what happened — a freak accident, a horrible tragedy. Then you go home and hug your wife and child and try to get some rest just hours after death crept so close you could smell its fetid breath.

\n "When my car was spinning through the median and through oncoming traffic, I think there were two cars coming the other way that missed me," Atwal recalls today, seated in a dimly lit lounge at Isleworth. "When you think about it, if you get hit or the car rolls over on the median, you're done."

\n"I guess I was lucky," he says.

\nPark was not.

\n"As soon as I found out that [Park] wasn't going to live, even though it wasn't my fault, you just feel like, you know, you see that he has family and he's got kids," Atwal says. "You feel like you should be able to talk to them and explain to them what happened. They don't want to go through life thinking that their husband or dad was street racing. I just thought it should have been cleared away right away."

\nIt wasn't. The next day the Orlando Sentinel ran the headline, "Pro golfer may be charged in fatality," with comments from a Florida Highway Patrol trooper who said police had "very good" witnesses who said that though the two cars never touched they "were engaged with each other." "What they were doing, whether one was mad — we don't know yet," the trooper said. "They were both old enough to know better."

\n"I heard about it on the morning news," says Tour veteran John Cook, an Isleworth member and friend of Atwal's who was also playing in that nine-hole match with Atwal and Woods. "I couldn't believe it. I looked at my wife and said, 'I was with him literally 10 minutes before this happened.'" Cook says he also was surprised by how the local media treated the story. "They jumped all over it without knowing any of the facts," Cook says.

\nThe facts were muddier still 9,000 miles away in Atwal's native India. "People thought that I was dead, because [the reports] said that I was involved in a fatal crash," Atwal says. "That was the headline, so people thought I had died."

\nBy the time Atwal rejoined the Nationwide Tour three weeks later in California, players and pundits alike were still buzzing about the accident, trying to decipher fact from fiction. "There was chatter and times when other players talked about it behind his back," says Jerry Foltz, a Nationwide Tour analyst for the Golf Channel. "But that was the least of his worries."

\nWhat Atwal contended was a tragic mishap had triggered a high-profile police investigation — Were they racing? Was anyone at fault? — that left the golfer in an awkward, defenseless limbo. "Everyone wanted to know [what had happened], and I couldn't really talk about it," Atwal says. "First of all I wasn't going to get any lawyers and then I did. With the investigation the way it was going, I didn't know how it was going to work out. My lawyers told me not to talk about it until it was over.

\n"So I couldn't really tell anyone my side of the story, which I felt really bad about because people were trying to portray me as someone who was out there trying to street race. I have a family with two kids and obviously Mr. Park had his family. There's no way we're the typical profile of street racers. That story just seemed all wrong, but I couldn't say anything about it." Atwal couldn't even send flowers to the Park family on advice of his lawyers.

\nWhen the Florida Highway Patrol finally issued its report in January — nearly 11 months after the accident — it concluded that Atwal and Park were indeed racing and recommended that the state attorney's office charge Atwal with vehicular homicide, which in Florida carries up to a 30-year prison sentence. Three weeks later, after weighing the facts, the attorney general's office balked, deeming that there was not enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Atwal caused Park to drive off the road. "The Vehicular Homicide statute by its language requires that the reckless driving of the accused be the cause of the death of the victim," wrote Assistant State Attorney Robert Eagan. "That element, cause, is lacking." His office would not press charges.

\nWhen Atwal heard the news, he was alone in a hotel room on the other side of the world. "My wife called," Atwal recalls. "She was in America at that time and I was in Indonesia and she told me about it, and I was like, 'Wow.' Even though you know you're going to be fine, you always think about your family more than anything else. That's basically what my thing concern was at that point. You think about your kids, your wife. I was always wondering that if I do have to go to court, 'What will I go through?'"

\n\nThere was no euphoric rush, no celebratory hug with the bellhop. Just relief. "We had a conversation about how difficult an emotion it is to describe," says Bobby Kreusler, Atwal's manager. "There isn't elation. You don't laugh or have any kind of joy. Arjun witnessed a man losing his life. It was more of just an acknowledgment that the major final step had been cleared and you can start to have some return to normalcy."

\nAtwal has olive skin, black, wavy hair and a square chin. He is boyishly handsome, and reserved. "He keeps a lot of things inside," says Larry Dell Aquila, who coached Atwal at Nassau Community College on Long Island and who remains a close friend. "I think he graduated with a 3.2 or 3.3 average, but he didn't want anyone to know how bright he was." Atwal's private nature might explain why he often uses the second person to describe how he is trying to get past the accident. "You have to try to put it in the back of your mind," Atwal says. "But it's always there. You can never let it go. Today when I drive on that road I'll still think about it."

\nOn a recent morning at Isleworth, Atwal seemed blissfully at home, warmly greeting the attendant at the front desk by her first name, yapping with the grillroom bartender about his wife's curry. He seemed affable and accessible. "He's a pretty selfless person, and that's rare for a golfer," less says Foltz, the Nationwide Tour analyst.

\nAtwal will not discuss the specifics of the accident, partly because he already told the police his story, partly because his lawyers contend that he has nothing to gain from rehashing the details and partly because, well, it was over almost as soon as it began. "It probably happened in five or six seconds," Atwal says. "But it felt like it took a lot longer. It was too scary to even describe."

\nThe aftermath was frightening in its own way. "There were a lot of things said that [Park and I] knew each other, and that we left Isleworth together," Atwal says. "There was none of that." Even Atwal's supporters weren't exempt from what Atwal and Kreusler describe as reckless reporting by the media. "Daniel Chopra, who I've been best friends with for a while, he was trying to clear up things with me and the accident and he was misquoted as well," Atwal says. "He was brought to tears by the media at Bay Hill because guys...wouldn't leave him alone. Apparently he was saying, 'I know that it's been a horrible tragedy but I know Arjun is not going to be charged with it, he's going to come through.' But they made it sound like he's not concerned with the death of [Park]. It was all misinterpreted."

\nAs the police investigation ensued, Atwal still had bills to pay. In his first tournament back, he finished tied for sixth, but his play mostly soured thereafter. He missed the cut in five of 17 starts on the Nationwide Tour and notched just one more top 10. Atwal says the course was an escape ("My mind would switch off from everything else"), but he wasn't practicing between events, and Kreusler says Atwal wasn't engaged. "He was going through the motions. He wasn't playing any kind of real golf."

\nStill, Atwal plodded through the season, banking $237,000 between the two Tours. Atwal credits his wife for helping him forge on. "It was amazing to see that she was very strong through it," he says. "If I wasn't married to her there's no way I could have played any more of that year." [Sona declined to be interviewed for this story.] Atwal says the birth of Shivo, in December, also helped put him at ease.

\n"How Arjun did it, I don't know," Cook says. "Golf is 95 percent mental when you get to this point. Any time something interrupts your mental state, it's very difficult. His demeanor, his pride, his will to get better definitely got him through the bad time."

\nThree weeks after Atwal learned he had been exonerated and nearly a year to the day of the accident, he won the Malaysian Open, an event co-sanctioned by the European and Asian Tours. Atwal shot 64 in the final round and birdied the final hole to force a playoff, which he won on the second extra hole. "It is an amazing feeling," Atwal told reporters. "I don't know how to put it into words."

\nAtwal has had plenty of emotions over the last 17 months that have been difficult to verbalize. His resolve hasn't been one of them. "He'd call me and say, 'Coach, we'll get through this,'" Dell Aquila says. " 'I know this wasn't my fault and when they check things out they're going to know that it was not my fault.' "

\nSays Atwal: "If I went to jail, I'd be innocent still."

\nHarder to accept is that regardless of how and why things played out a man is dead. And it could have just as easily been Atwal. "I don't get angry anymore," Atwal says when asked how the experience changed him. "I don't get annoyed. Even on the golf course, I'm just kind of chilled out."

\n"He's always been a mellow, down-to-earth person," Kreusler adds, "but perspective-wise, I think it's given him a stronger appreciation for family, and that it isn't all about golf. Golf is what you do, it's not who you are."

\nStill, Atwal seems to have regained his golf form. Through early June, in addition to his win in Malaysia, he had three top 10s in just eight starts on the Nationwide Tour, putting him 18th on the money list (the top 25 at season's end will earn a PGA Tour card for 2009). And he even picked up a new sponsor, Ecco shoes. Atwal says it's probably no coincidence that his play improved soon after he was cleared, but mostly, he says, it's a product of hard work and precisely what he was doing on March 10, 2007, less than an hour before his life changed forever: learning from the best.

\n"When you're practicing at Isleworth and seeing the greatest player in the world hitting all these shots on the range," he says, "some good stuff always rubs off on you." And Lord knows Atwal could use some of that.

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