Arjun Atwal: No Good Comes From Being Too Technical

After earning his card at the end of 2003, Arjun Atwal finally won his first PGA Tour event at the 2010 Wyndham Championship in Greensboro. He was the first player from India to do so and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

By the time that win happened for him — and I use the term “happened” intentionally — he had fallen into the bad habit of trying to get full playing status by banging back and forth between the Tour and the Tour.

And now he finds himself on the brink again: his two-year exemption for the 2010 win runs out this year and he’s only made $256,770. As he said in today’s post-round interview:

Yeah, I’m in a desperate situation. I got no choice except to either win or finish in the top two, I think my caddie figured out. So I just gotta grind it out.

Why he was having this conversation in the media room was that he “went off” on Friday and shot 7-under 63. That got him to 10-under for the tournament and a one-shot lead over hometown boy, Davis Love III and his down-coast neighbor from Ponte Vedra, Jim Furyk. Two shots back sit young phenom, Bud Cauley; veteran, David Toms and Aussie, Gavin Coles.

So without knowing much about Atwal because his career has been so virtually anonymous, you might think that he would really feel the heat being paired with Love and Furyk on Saturday. And he might. But living in Isleworth in Orlando, he became a constant practice-round player with Tiger Woods when he lived up there. And even now, if the two are playing in the same event, they play practice rounds together.

But it’s hard to know just how much that really helped him. On the one hand, he had the opportunity to play with the best player in the world in many intimate practice rounds; how could he not have become better in the process? But on the other hand, he might have seen the huge gulf between Tiger and himself and capitulated to a comfortable career rather than making the effort to climb to a mountain top he knew he could never reach.

On the other hand, here’s what he had to say about this year’s doldrums compared to his winning year in 2010:

It’s a little different because I got really technical in the beginning of this year.  That year I wasn’t technical at all.  I was just playing my game and trying to figure stuff out.  But this year for like the first ten events I couldn’t think anything but technique and then started to get away from that a little bit and then lost.

This week I didn’t even hit a ball.  I just get up in the morning and just go.  So I don’t have to think about technique.

Literally didn’t hit a ball? How was that possible?

As in like afterwards, like Tuesday practice.  I usually come out and practice after my practice round or hit balls on Wednesday or after my round.  I haven’t done that in the tournament this week.

But it turns out there was a good excuse for becoming bound up in mechanics:

I don’t know.  I can’t really — you know, after I started [playing mechanically] — I told my wife, I’m like, I’ve never played golf like that, so she’s like, you gotta get away from it.  And yeah, it’s weird, like Memphis and a couple of other events that I played, I wasn’t really thinking about the swing.

Although it’s not clear how much clearing his mind actually helped. He posted a T19 in Memphis in early June and hasn’t done better than that since. The closest was a T28 at the Canadian Open in late July. And although he made 8 of 11 cuts beginning with Memphis, his finishes weren’t high enough to make a serious dent in his earning requirements.

And there was one other thing that contributed to playing so technically:

I switched coaches last year, at the end of last year and I went with Mark Blackburn, and even though he doesn’t want me to be technical, there was a few things that I had to change, and it’s taken me a lot of time to do it.

Well, full disclosure, having gone through three coaching changes in my nine Monday qualifying years, I know what he’s going through:

Coach #2: “Well, you should have this down in a year.”

Me: “A year! I don’t have a year. I have to play!”

Coach #2: “Oh, you can play. You just won’t be able to score very well.”

And he was right. And now, in the interest of seriously exploring what’s possible for me as a player, I’m on Coach #4…and all technical and mechanical…and trying to bridge that gap between the drills and tips that force you into the right positions…and playing with the sun at my back and the gentle breezes blowing through my hair.

I think the answer lies in range and playing reps keeping the new, awkward feelings as long as possible using routine coaching interventions. If it begins to feel normal too quickly and you don’t have a good pair of eyes looking over your shoulder, it’s probably because you’ve reverted to the old swing.

The search for answers to these and other cosmic questions continues.

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