While PGA Tour newcomers Austin Smotherman and Harrison Endycott grabbed a one-shot lead at the Port Royal course in Southampton after carding opening 62s, it was Atwal's performance after more than three months away from the game - and in trying circumstances - that caught the eye.
Atwal only got into the field on Thursday morning after American Nicholas Lindheim withdrew due to a back injury, and it's fair to say he was not expected to challenge near the top of the leaderboard.
"I got here around 7:30, hit a few wedges and then went in to eat breakfast," Atwal said. "About 8:45 my caddie texted me. He's like, oh, 9:10 we might have a game. So I left my breakfast, came out, hit a few drivers and off we went."
Atwal birdied his first three holes out of the gate then added six more against only one bogey to lie just one shot off the pace in a five-way tie for third place.
It was an impressive performance from a player who has dropped to 2,815th in the world golf rankings after deciding to take an extended break to head home and be with his family following the unexpected death of his father, an experience he admits has been very hard on him.
"I haven't played much golf. I lost my father about three months ago in India, so I went over there," Atwal said.
"I've never had a loss in my immediate family. It's my first one, so it's really hard to deal with. And with my parents, they lived in India. My mom still lives in India. Not having seen them for all these years, it was really tough on me."
Having played so little golf recently, Atwal is keeping his expectations of a second PGA Tour title in check, while the 49-year-old is already preparing for life on the Champions Tour next year.
"The game is just a game. I take it for what it is now and I have nothing to prove to anybody. I've won out here, I've won on the European Tour, the Asian Tour and I'm looking forward to the 50 tour (Champions) next year after March," he added.
Others to share third place with Atwal include Adam Schenk, Scott Brown, Denny McCarthy and Robby Shelton.