Will the Golf Revolution Be Televised?

Arjun Atwal’s victory at the Wyndham Open last year was especially exciting for me to watch because I had met Arjun during his rehabilitation from serious shoulder injuries and knew him as an affable, determined and optimistic guy.   He was well-liked among this peers, with his cheerful outlook and solid game. When his tour exemptions for the medical leave he’d had to take in hopes that his injured shoulders would heal finally ran out before he had earned enough to retain his Tour card, Arjun took the unlikely road down the Monday qualifying lane to get into the Wyndham, then hung on with a gutty Sunday performance to win for the first time on the PGA Tour.  He was the first Monday qualifier to win on Tour since 1986

Arjun Atwal --Rehabbing at the Albertson's Boise Open

The Wyndham triumph was not only great for Arjun personally, it was a giant boost for Indian sport.  His victory was front page news in the Indian papers.   Indians are mad for cricket, but haven’t had a lot of success in the international sports arena, apart from five Olympic gold medals in field hockey.   Arjun’s victory confirmed India’s rising stature in the international arena, reflecting its success in building a powerful economy and a thriving middle class. 

Field Hockey is India’s National Sport–Good Training for Swinging at a Small Stationary Ball.

And with the victory Arjun not only won back his spot on the Tour, it put him in the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, an event for Tour winners only.

The Golf Channel offered extensive coverage of the first two rounds, on Thursday and Friday, which I happily recorded so I could see how Arjun would handle himself among the class of elite players. My sense was that he would play very well.   He had proven that he could win when the stakes were as high as they could be—essentially, a final chance to resurrect his career on what is still the main stage of world golf, the PGA Tour.

Arjun had won in part under the tutorship of the Australian swing guru, Dale Lynch, who has continued to work with Arjun on the fine points of his game.  He wasn’t confronting an inflated pressure, as he had when he was faced with having to earn enough money in only a handful of starts to try to keep his card.  So with high hopes for Arjun and excited about seeing the great pros start posting low numbers at Kapalua again, I turned on the TV.

But I didn’t see Arjun hit a single shot.  In the first round, there was a lot of Graeme McDowell, the Irishman who had earned the right to plenty of air time with his brave and popular performances in 2010, especially at the US Open and the Ryder Cup.  

Graeme McDowell Pretty in Pink

The coverage focused on other international stars as well—Ernie Els (who played great the second day), Camilo Villegas (who would be disqualified for casually flicking away some grass in the path of a moving ball, and then not penalizing himself), and Jason Day, (the great young Australian, who hit about six inches behind a teed-up ball on the 13th with his driver and measured off the mis-hit as 110 yards, but still made par on the hole).  But nothing of Arjun.  He didn’t play particularly well, ending at 1 under in the first round, paired with the struggling Rocco Mediate.  

In the second round, he was paired with Dustin Johnson, who was playing very well in his own insouciant style, and I caught glimpses of Arjun in the background as Johnson swung or putted or pulled his ball out of the hole, but no shots ever focused on Arjun actually playing.  On the par three 11th, we got to watch Johnson’s tee shot as it arced toward the hole and landed thirty feet or so above the cup.  We could see another ball close to the cup, but the author of that shot was not mentioned.  He had teed off first, which meant that Arjun had played at least one previous hole better than Johnson. But we didn’t see Arjun’s putt—his was a phantom presence.   

Johnson did play well for the most part, and finished with a seven-under 66, while Arjun bogeyed the easy 18th for a 69, on a day on which leader Robert Garrigus carded 63.  Still, it’s not as if Arjun doesn’t have a swing or an overall game worthy of the airways, and a personality at least as engaging as the laconic Dustin Johnson’s.  Arjun is a good-looking guy, too, strolling the fairways with an athlete’s rhythmic gait.  He’s quick to smile and clearly enjoys being where he is.

The golf axis, as I have frequently pointed out in The A Position, is shifting, tilting away from North America toward Asia.  China has embraced the game with a revivifying vigor, but India has more good professionals already on the big tours than China, a contingent led by Arjun that also includes Jeev Mikva Singh, SSP Chowrasia, and Rahil Gangjee.  If you total the population of all of the countries other than India with players in the Tournament of Champions—the USA, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Italy, and so on—it totals roughly 560,000,000 people.  India’s population is more than double that total, at 1.2 billion.  Let’s show India a little respect.

We talk a lot in the golf business about growing the game.   Paying attention to the top professionals coming from the emerging markets–the Arjun Atwals of the game—is one simple approach that would help parochial American fans realize how rich the potential is for the future of international golf.  The future of golf depends on its ability to adjust to the new global character of the game.

I predict that Arjun Atwal will win again in 2011.   I hope his victory is televised.

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