Atwal, 23, was at home in Calcutta watching India beat Scotland at St Andrews last October on television. He was first reserve then and was in the same position for the Johnnie Walker Classic last week when Jeev Singh declined his invitation as the Indian representative at Hope Island.
Atwal took his chance to shine. A five-under 67 gave him a share of the first-round lead, with David Carter, of England, and the Australians Anthony Painter and Steve Conran. Colin Montgomerie shot a 71 as the big names, Fred Couples apart, failed to live up to their billing.
Atwal's round came with the aid of seven birdies and despite a double- bogey at the seventh. It followed a change of grip and help with his putting from Kel Llewellyn, the Australian coach of the Indian-raised Swede, Daniel Chopra, on Wednesday.
"The reason that India has not produced more sports stars from 950 million people is because at school it is impossible also to do sport," Atwal said. "They concentrate on the academics. In India no one looked at golf as something you can make money from until recently. Now there are more people beginning to play."
Atwal protected himself against the Queensland sun with a cap promoting the hotel he is staying in. Clearly, he has an eye for a deal. "They said if we wore the cap, we could stay for free," he said. The next trick is to get someone to pay him to attend tournaments.
The morning starters had an advantage as the breeze got up later when rounds took up to five hours. Couples, who won this title two years ago, was the best of the bunch with a 68, but his fellow American John Daly struggled to a 77 after birdies at the first two holes.
"I played like King Kong on the front nine and like shit on the back," was Daly's less than eloquent summation. A hip injury he picked up three weeks ago prevented Daly from practising on Wednesday, but he added: "The hip was burning a little, but it wasn't bad enough to cause me to play this awful."
Els chipped in at the ninth for his second eagle in a 70, a round matched by Nick Faldo, who was "good in parts, rusty in others". The defending champion, Ian Woosnam, struggled with his driving in a 74, but that was the strength of Montgomerie's game. It usually is, of course, but this was his first tournament round with his first new driver for five years.
The Scot has moved up to Callaway's Great Big Bertha after retiring his previous model when winning the Million Dollar Challenge in December. "That club has won me millions of pounds and it is always a bit worrying to switch but I drove well," he said. This one may win him even more.
Carter, South African-born but Chesterfield-based, did not drop a shot as he set a new course record. The 24-year-old won the Qualifying School in 1994, but his first official title came in December. It was, of course, the Indian PGA Championship.
JOHNNIE WALKER CLASSIC (Hope Island, Queensland) Leading first-round scores (GB or Irl unless stated): 67 D Carter, A Atwal (Ind), A Painter (Aus), S Conran (Aus). 68 S Alker (NZ), F Couples (US), F Casas (Phil), C Jones (Aus), R Gibson (Can), M Long (NZ). 69 D Chopra (Swe), R Stephens (Aus), S Laycock (Aus), Zhang Lian-wei (Ch), L Parsons (Aus), T Price (Aus), P Lonard (Aus), D Howell, P Eales, M Tunnicliff, S Leaney (Aus), P Senior (Aus). 70 J Cooper (Aus), J Evans, P Teravainen (US), D Gilford, F Nobilo (NZ), A Bossert (Swit), R Muntz (Neth), M Campbell (NZ), A Kadir (Mal), S Richardson, E Els (SA), R Davis (Aus), N Faldo, J Van de Velde (Fr). 71 S Cage, M Wheelhouse (NZ), Mo Joong-kyung (S Kor), G Orr, J Senden (Aus), S Tait (Aus), R Green (Aus), D Cole, S Appleby (Aus), P Baker, B Lane, V Singh (Fiji), P Harrington, T Gogele (Ger), G Chalmers (Aus), P Devenport (NZ), A Sherborne, Choi Kjung-ju (S Kor), C Montgomerie. Selected: 72 J Robson, R Boxall, R Chapman, D Clarke, A Coltart, M Mouland, R McFarlane. 73 S Torrance. 74 P Broadhurst, I Woosnam. 76 R Claydon, R Rafferty.Reuse content