India’s Arjun Atwal is preparing to launch a title challenge at next month’s US$1.75 million Hero Indian Open, the tournament which propelled him to stardom nearly 20 years ago.

Atwal claimed his maiden Asian Tour victory at his home Open back in 1999 which subsequently paved the way to a stellar career that now includes eight tournament wins across the region and also one historic triumph in the United States.

In addition, he became Asia’s number one in 2003, was the first golfer to break US$1 million in career earnings on the Asian Tour and played his way into the record books by becoming the first Indian golfer to win on the European Tour and PGA Tour.

Turning 44 in March, Atwal feels he is still very capable of competing at the highest level in Asia and he is turning his attention to the Hero Indian Open, co-sanctioned by the Asian Tour and European Tour, which takes place at the DLF Golf and Country Club from March 9 to 12.

“I’m looking forward to it, it’s our national open. It’s fun as you get to play in front of family and friends. I’ve won at the old course at DLF a long time ago and it’s a brand new course now. I think it’s going to be a challenging test as the greens are very undulating,” said Atwal.

He recalled with great fondness his career breakthrough which he achieved in the 1999 Indian Open at his home course at Royal Calcutta Golf Club.

“Winning then was fantastic. Obviously I’d never won on the Asian Tour, I’d come close and kept knocking on the door on many occasions. But to do it for the first time at home in front of everybody, my family and friends, that was really special,” said Atwal.

“It gave me the confidence that I could win and I did go on to win quite a few more tournaments. It’s been a fulfilling career. I had set goals for myself and I got to most of my goals. You know, I was the first Indian to win on the European Tour, the first to win on the PGA Tour … that can never be taken away from me. It’s always going to be special to me.”

A back injury in recent years has forced Atwal to readjust his playing schedule and tweak his golf swing to avoid the risk of enduring spasms. With today’s modern game now trending towards a new and young generation of golfers, Atwal still believes he is very capable of competing and winning on the Asian Tour.

“As long as my health is okay, if I can get into contention, I know I can hold my nerve and win again. I proved it when I won in Dubai (in 2014 which was his last Asian Tour victory). When I got into that position, it all came back. It was no big deal handling the pressure. That’s why I’m still playing,” said Atwal.

“The back is better. I’m trying to figure out a few things in my golf swing where my back doesn’t go out. It’s almost like the same injury that Tiger (Woods) is having. If the joints go out of position, the lower back will go into spasm.”

These days, Atwal is also happy to play the “big brother” role to many of India’s upcoming talents such as Shubhankar Sharma and Chikkarangappa S.

“I see a lot of talent coming out of India. I played in our domestic tour championship (last season) and I saw a bunch of kids with really good golf swings and the fitness is better. They are learning the game in a different way from what we had to come through. The science is better for them while we played by feel back then,” said Atwal.

“They are good mature kids and I’m looking forward to seeing their careers grow. I was never as good as they are now when I was their age. However, I like to see them winning a bit more. What I’m trying to instill in them is that at the end of it all, it’s all about winning. You’ve got to learn how to win.

“I’m happy to offer advice if they ask me. I’ve had phone calls when I’m back home in Orlando and I’m happy to chat with anyone. Jeev (Singh), Jyoti (Randhawa) and myself didn’t have a generation before us. So it’s good to be able to help the kids whenever they ask.”

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