Kuala Lumpur: Having returned to the winner's circle at the end of last year after a frustrating four-year title drought, Arjun Atwal seems high on confidence ahead of the 2015 Maybank Malaysian Open here.
Two-time champion at the Malaysian Open, the 41-year-old Atwal is gung-ho about being back at a place, which has such fond memories.
"I won in 2003 and 2008 on two different venues but it is always fun coming back to Kuala Lumpur. People in Malaysia are always very hospitable," Atwal, marking his 20th year as a professional, said. "The 2003 win was really important because I ended up winning the Order of Merit."
The Malaysian Open boasts of a world-class field, which includes former World No. 1 Lee Westwood, the defending champion, and former US Open winner, Graeme McDowell, besides three-time Asian No. 1, Thongchai Jaidee, two-time Asian No. 1 Jeev Milkha Singh and a whole lot of other stars, including Anirban Lahiri, the highest ranked Indian in the world and last year's No. 2 on Asian Tour.
Besides Atwal, Lahiri and Jeev, Jyoti Randhawa, Shiv Kapur, Rashid Khan, SSP Chowrasia, Gaganjeet Bhullar and Rahil Gangjee make it a total of nine Indians in the field for the USD 3 million event, co-sanctioned by Asia and Europe.
The Malaysian Open marks the start of the Asian Tour season, which will continue with the Thailand Classic next week and then the Hero Indian Open, another event Atwal has won in the past.
Talking about the golf course, Atwal said: "The golf course is playing soft. The fairways are soft and the greens are firm. It is a funny combination so I think it will be an interesting week. I just had a one-month break after my win in Dubai. I took two weeks without touching my clubs. I had a seven-week row run last year and that's a lot for my age!"
Speaking of the relief of having won in Dubai at the end of last year, he said, "It is definitely a relief where I don't have to ask for a sponsors invite. It is better for me in terms of scheduling. It is a good way to make my schedule.
"At one stage (about a year or so before the win) I was at a point where I didn't think I would play golf again because of my injuries. It was tough for me to walk at a certain point. To get back from that stage to win a tournament, is probably the biggest in my life. I give it more importance to my PGA Tour win."
A close friend of Tiger Woods, Atwal said he was shocked to see him shot an 82. "I was shocked when I saw that Tiger shot an 82. We texted before he went to Phoenix. He said he was feeling good and his game was feeling great. Maybe it was one of those freak days because you don't expect from him! I think he will be fine," said Atwal.
Lahiri, who has won five times on Asian Tour and earned his European Tour card last year, said he was familiar with the golf course here.
"It was a breakthrough for me in a way because up until last year, I didn't really play well here. We've played here quite a bit so I'm familiar with the golf course. It is nice to go out there and know what you need to do.
"Sometimes you come across courses in your career where you are naturally comfortable on and there are those where you need to adapt to. This for me was in the latter category. Over the years I understood how to strategise on the golf course. It has been a slow and gradual process and not an overnight awakening."
About playing alongside an elite field, Lahiri said, "If anything it spurs me on to do better. It inspires me to push myself a little harder. Having said that I've played consistently in top notch field. It is not a new experience anymore. It is easy to say that the first time I played in the Maybank Malaysian Open, I was a little bit scared and unsure of myself. That's now in the past.
"Not only have I matured but I've improved mentally and I'm able to focus on what I need to do instead of what's going on around me. It has been a slow process though."
Coming from 2014, which was his best season, he said: "It is a clean slate. You got to start from scratch. My goals are the same. Top-50, playing in Europe and America, these are all the goals that I will always have in mind right through my careers. I have to build this season, primarily playing in the European Tour but I'll play my minimum in Asia. I do enjoy being in Asia so I'll still play here."