3M OpenJuly 5, 2019

Arjun Atwal, a Monday qualifier, is in contention in only his third PGA Tour start this season

Honma Hong Kong Open - Day Two
On Man Kevin LeeArjun Atwal, in a rare PGA Tour start, is in contention at the 3M Open. (Photo by On Man Kevin Lee/Getty Images)

BLAINE, Minn. — For a guy who has made $18,066 in his last two years combined on the PGA Tour and hasn’t had the status to play more than eight events in any season since he lost his card in 2012, Arjun Atwal sounds like a guy whose big weekend plan is shaving the family cat.

After a bogey-free three-under 68 Friday at TPC Twin Cities, the journeyman golfer enters Saturday’s third round of the inaugural 3M Open inside the top five on the leader board for the first time since he stood T-4 through 36 holes of the 2017 Quicken Loans National. The 46-year-old native of India, who completed 36 holes in nine-under 133, hasn’t had a top-10 finish since the 2012 McGladrey Classic.

He could barely contain his excitement at the prospects of regaining some kind of foothold in professional golf.

“I could shoot a couple of 80s this weekend and I’d be OK,” Atwal said with a shrug.

Wait, what?

Isn’t he the least bit ebullient about the possibility of emerging from his long odyssey through the golfing wilderness? Atwal had to Monday qualify just to get into his third tour event of the season and fifth tournament worldwide this year. (He’s played twice in Asia.) Now he has the chance to become the third player this decade to win a PGA Tour event after Monday qualifying.

Corey Conners turned the trick earlier this year at the Valero Texas Open. Before that, it had been nine years since someone pulled off the feat. The player’s name was Arjun Atwal.

“Yeah, what a jerk,” Atwal said kiddingly of Conners. “I kind of liked that distinction.”

Before Atwal, it had been 24 years since a player who advanced through a Monday qualifier went on to win. Fred Wadsworth and Kenny Knox both did it in 1986 at the Southern Open and Honda Classic, respectively.

Atwal’s victory, at the 2010 Wyndham Championship, represents his lone PGA Tour win, making him the first native of India to capture a tour event. The victory came roughly three years after he was involved in a scary and strange incident on an Orlando street when a driver trying to race Atwal lost control of his car and died. A year-long investigation ensued before Atwal was cleared of any wrongdoing.

He felt luckier to be alive than to be exonerated.

Maybe if you go through an ordeal like that, you don’t sweat three-footers. Or maybe you just feel fortunate to be playing at all while dealing with a mid-back ailment that he can’t seem to get fixed and has doctors a bit stumped. It limits his practice time, though he does try to play 18 holes as many days as possible with friends at Isleworth.

“I see him all the time, and I know he works as hard as he can, that he keeps trying and doesn’t quit,” said fellow Orlando resident Charles Howell III. “It’s great to see him playing well here.”

“The difference,” Atwal said, “is that Charles hits balls on the range for eight hours. I can probably go about 40 minutes. Then I just go play.”

Finding a rhythm isn’t easy when you compete so infrequently and practice is limited. “It is really hard,” he admitted. “I mean, it's a battle to figure out what I have at any time. I chip and putt a lot. That helps.”

Somehow, he shot a course-record 9-under 62 in winning the tournament qualifier Monday at Victory Links Golf Course – without ever seeing it. He sent his caddie Mark Mazo to scout it and then made eight birdies and an eagle. “I hit it really well, and that gave me some confidence this week,” said Atwal, who made 109 feet of putts on Friday, including a 22-foot par save at the ninth, his final hole, to keep his card clean.

“Bogey free is nice,” he said, smiling, but again with a blithe shrug.

Interestingly, while finding a rhythm might be difficult, finding motivation isn't. The thing that keeps him going, what keeps him practicing, is nothing more than love of the game. It sounds corny and trite, but there really is nothing more to it. “I do it for fun,” he said. “I love the game. I really do.”

He must. The man who takes joy out of his work, even when he struggles with it, is a rare human. He is rarer still when he is a golfer.

Bryson DeChambeau fired a second-round 62 and he still couldn’t help but feel that, “I left a few shots out there.” He wasn’t satisfied, even after completing 36 holes in 14-under 128. Now, that's a golfer.

Atwal, though, seems at peace with the game, even if it hasn’t given him much lately. Actually, not in a long time. So whatever comes his way this weekend, he’ll love it just the same.

“Yeah, it feels good to be in the hunt, but it actually just feels good to be playing a tournament,” he said. “I’ve got nothing to prove at this point. I’ve won on every tour that I’ve played on. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to win. I’m here to try to win the tournament. But whatever happens I’m good with it.

“I didn’t really expect anything this week. I figured if I just made the cut it would be a good week for me,” he added. “I’m a lot older, broken down body, I haven’t really played since March. Again, I’m just happy to be playing.”

For him, that’s enough.