GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA // Arjun Atwal will no longer have to play early week qualifying events just to make it into tournaments. Atwal took care of that when he claimed the Wyndham Championship title to become the first Indian-born player to win on the PGA Tour. He won at Sedgefield Country Club by one stroke yesterday, becoming the first Monday qualifier to win on tour in 24 years. After leading or sharing the lead after each of the first three rounds, Atwal shot a three-under 67 in the final round. He finished at 20-under 260 and earned US$918,000 (Dh3.4 million) - or, more than double the amount he previously earned this year, the reason why his future on tour had been in jeopardy.
"I told my caddie, 'We've got nothing to lose this week. Just go out there and try and win it,"' Atwal said. "Guys are going to be out there trying to secure their FedEx Cup spots or whatever. We've got nothing. I don't have a card. I don't have anything. Just go out there and freewheel it, and that's what I did this week." Atwal is the first golfer to win both the qualifier and the tournament that follows since Fred Wadsworth at the 1986 Southern Open.
He had to play his way into the Wyndham on Monday after losing his tour card. Earlier in the week, he said he was considering playing Monday qualifiers this year as a way to make it into tournaments and boost his earnings in a push to regain his card for next year. No need to do that now, thanks to this victory. David Toms (64) was 19 under. John Mallinger and Michael Sim of Australia shot 62s to match John Rollins (65) and Justin Leonard (65) at 18 under.
For a few dizzying moments late in a low-scoring day, seven players shared the lead at 18 under. Atwal, who carried a three-stroke lead into the final round, was at 19 under for most of the day but bogeyed the par-three 12th a few minutes before Lucas Glover bogeyed 14 and Toms, Rollins and Leonard all birdied the 16th. "It just kept changing," Atwal said. "Everybody's tied for the lead at a certain point."
Atwal reclaimed the lead with a birdie on 14, Leonard birdied the 17th and Toms birdied the 18th to join them at 19 under. Leonard dropped back a stroke after running into trouble on 18, while Atwal still had three holes to play - giving him more than enough chances to settle things. Atwal made his move on the par-three 16th, plopping his tee shot 1.8-metre from the flagstick and sinking his birdie putt to move to 20 under. He followed that with consecutive pars, sinking a 2.15m putt on No. 18 before dropping his putter and extending his arms upward in jubilation after closing out his first tour victory.
"I was thinking about going to the (driving) range, but when he got to 20 under and they said he had a 15-footer on 17, I just went in the clubhouse and tried to cool off," Toms said. "I was ready to go to the range, if need be, but good for (Atwal). I know it's tough to get that first victory. ... I'm sure that he was battling some nerves, and to pour it in from 6-8 feet on that last hole was pretty impressive."
Glover (67) finished at 17 under, and Webb Simpson (63), Chris Riley (64), Scott Piercy (68) and second-round co-leader Brandt Snedeker (69) were one stroke behind him. Atwal, who has won on the European, Asian and Nationwide tours, certainly has been through plenty during the past few years. The player perhaps best known for his practice rounds with Tiger Woods is ineligible for the play-offs and lost his tour card last month because he was too low on the money list when his minor medical exemption ran out. That came after he said he returned too soon following weightlifting injuries to both shoulders.
Three years ago, a driver trying to race him down an Orlando Florida street died in a crash. Atwal was cleared of any wrongdoing, although the year-long investigation took an emotional toll. The Wyndham also marked the last chance for players to pick up points for the play-offs that begin next week in New Jersey. Piercy was the only player to play his way into the post-season, moving from 140th to 125th. Michael Letzig, who arrived at No 125 on the points list, finished 14 under move to No 118, solidifying his spot in The Barclays.
"The goal is to give myself another tournament to play," Letzig said. "I'm in, so (I'll) see what happens." * AP