Woods had a puzzled look on his face, the coach recalled recently. Woods paused and said, "I didn't know they had college golf in India."
It was an honest mistake. On the pro circuit, Atwal is known as the first golfer born in India to have won a PGA Tour event. But the reality is that his career was born after he left Calcutta as a teenager for Long Island. He was a Nassau County golf champion for Clarke High School and a national champion for Nassau Community College.
He will be the first to say that those experiences helped bring him where he is today: heading to the Augusta National Golf Club for his first Masters.
"The confidence I got, playing in high school matches and winning a lot, that's what taught me how to win. There's no substitute for that, whatever level you're playing on," said the golfer whose guest list at the Masters will include Nassau Community College coach Larry Dell Aquila, whom Woods met on the practice green. "He was like a second father to me," Atwal said.
And Atwal was second to none as a competitor. "You could see it in his work ethic and the way he didn't let things bother him. He kept grinding," Dell Aquila said in his office, where the walls are filled with team plaques and clippings about Atwal. "And this is the best part about Arjun: He never, ever said, `I'm the best one here.' He would always try to help the other guys."
The 38-year-old has played in other major championships, including the U.S. Open last year. But this will be his first time experiencing the unique atmosphere and traditions of the Masters. One of the customs is that an invitation is extended to everyone who has won a PGA Tour event in the previous year. So Atwal earned his way in by winning the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C. last August--having secured one of the last spots in the field during a Monday qualifying round.
That is pretty much how Long Islanders remember a high school sophomore, new to the country. Atwal's brother Govind had a hearing impairment and his parents believed he could get the best possible education in the U.S. They didn't want him to come alone. So they sent the two teenage boys to live with a relative in East Meadow.
"I was his homeroom teacher. In about February, he asked, `Aren't you the golf coach at East Meadow?' " said John Ambrose, who put Atwal in touch with the Clarke golf coach, Martin Sasso. "After the first day, Martin said, `This is the best kid I've ever seen.' "
Sasso retired after that season, and Ambrose moved over to coach Clarke. He got to see Atwal become a champion. "He really worked hard. He would go out and hit 1,000 golf balls a day--after practice," said Ambrose, who now teaches and coaches in West Lafayette, Ind. "I tell everyone, I just left him alone. I don't take the credit for him, that's for sure."
Ambrose does use Atwal as an example with the junior high golfers he coaches now. "Arjun gave me a good acronym: GASP, for grip, aim, stance and posture," he said.
Current Clarke coach Scott Kassan graduated with Atwal in 1992. "It was pretty cool to play with someone who could shoot par, especially since my friend and I were just taking up the game," Kassan said. "He was a really laid back kid, fun to be around."
The first speech Kassan gives every season involves Atwal, "I say, 'He was here, trying out, 20 years ago. Look what he went on to. You never know what can happen."
Even when Atwal was playing full time on the Asian Tour in the late 1990s, he was no stranger here. That tour shut down in the summer and at Dell Aquila's request, Atwal practiced at Colonial Springs Golf Club in East Farmingdale. "He would be on the putting green for hours on end," said club pro Bill Bresnan, a fellow Nassau CC alumnus. "He was very approachable. People still talk about him to this day. They'll be following him this week."