Finally, at the end of his best season as a pro golfer, Arjun Atwal can look ahead. That is the value of winning a tournament, which guarantees a two-year exemption to play any or all events on the PGA Tour. "You can pick and choose where you go and where you don't go," he said.
He can look back, too. Atwal believes there is no telling if he ever would have gone as far as he has - full-fledged Tour member, Tiger Woods' regular practice companion - had he not grown up as a golfer on Long Island.
"That was huge," Atwal said on the phone from Las Vegas, where he was playing in the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospital for Children Open. "I was a decent player when I came to high school in New York. But the confidence I got, playing high school matches and winning a lot of high school matches, is what taught me how to win. And there is no substitute for that, whatever level you're playing at."
So it might seem like playing for Clarke High School and Nassau Community College is in a different world from sinking a nationally televised Sunday putt on the 18th green to win the Wyndham Championship. But the 37-year-old sees both stops as part of the same straight line. It is all part of a trajectory that is pointing straight up and heading to one of golf's greatest heights: Augusta, Ga.
Larry Dell Aquila, his coach at Nassau CC whom Atwal describes as "a second father to me," talked about that with his former player. "I said, 'I guess your mom and dad will be going, right?' He told me, 'Don't worry coach, you're going, too,' " Dell Aquila said.
Technically, this all began in India. Indeed, when he won the Wyndham in August he became the first player born in India to win on the PGA Tour. Really, though, the roots of his golf are in the mats of driving ranges at Cantiague and Eisenhower Parks. That is where he would go every day. That became his home turf after his parents sent Arjun and his brother as teenagers to live with their uncle in East Meadow. Arjun's brother had a hearing impairment and the family did not believe he would get the education he needed at home.
Arjun became a force for Clarke on Eisenhower's Red and White Courses. He just wasn't good enough to be recruited. Atwal remembers it this way: "My brother was at Nassau and he went up to the coach and said, 'My brother is pretty good.' Coach came and saw me play."
Just about instantly, Dell Aquila signed him up. Atwal shot 66 at Bethpage Black, becoming the only junior college player ever to win the St. John's Invitational. He also won the junior college national championship. He formed a bond with the coach that still is strong.
"He made everyone feel really special. He was strict, too," Atwal said. "You couldn't goof off. I won't mention any names, but a friend of mine missed curfew. We had a really strong chance of winning the nationals, but coach didn't let him play."
When Atwal was inducted into the Nassau Community College Hall of Fame this month and couldn't make it because of his tournament schedule, Dell Aquila made the acceptance speech.
In the past few years, Atwal has formed another strong bond, with Woods. They are neighbors in the Isleworth community near Orlando, they encourage each other through rough times in their lives and push each other during practice. This year, they have one PGA Tour win between them.
"He was texting me every day after my round, saying things like 'This is the number you need to get to,'" Atwal said. "I spoke with him afterward and he said that when I made that putt, everyone at the club was sitting around the TV. Needless to say, they all had a drink on me."
Atwal added that his win and his revived career are a toast to his experience at Eisenhower, Cantiague and Bethpage. "The Black, without a doubt, is still one of my favorite golf courses in the world. It challenges you every hole," he said. "I miss Long Island. People don't believe me, but I really do."