Lahiri: 'I can win a major'

Sport is very fickle. Last year, I achieved most of my targets. In the years before that, I couldn’t achieve most of my targets. That doesn’t deter you from setting targets and working towards them," says Anirban Lahiri in a chat.

What matters is not how many majors you play, but how you play, says Anirban Lahiri.   -  AP

Anirban Lahiri, the winner of the 2015 Asian Tour Order of Merit crown, has now turned his attention to America in a bid to improve his world rankings. After a remarkable performance last year, when he finished joint fifth in the PGA Championships in Whistling Straits, the best by an Indian, Anirban, now ranked 40 in the world, has full exemption to play on the PGA Tour.

In an interview to Sportstar, Anirban explains the reasons for shifting his base to America, speaks about golf making its debut at the Rio Olympics and the legendary Tiger Woods among other things.

Excerpts:

Question: 2015 has been an outstanding year for you...

Answer: It’s been a brilliant year — getting off to the kind of start that I did, winning twice early in the year. Then the U.S. Masters, and then I had a bit of a slump. I would say between March and July 2015, I didn’t play very well. I was just getting acclimatised to the conditions, and dealing with the kind of jet-lag I had to for the first time was different too. Then again, I started playing a bit better in the summer, between July and August. I performed decently at the Open (he finished joint 30th), had a great finish (joint fifth) at the PGA Championship. Then I got my card for the PGA Tour and I went back to web.com finals. Towards the end of the year, I got tired.

You played 27 official world-ranking tournaments last year. Is that the most you have played on the Tour?

Yes, I played 27 tournaments but actually, I played for 30 weeks. That is the most I have played in a year.

I had to skip two or three events, just on the last stretch, which was a month and a half; I kind of exhausted myself. This year that will be a challenge.

A challenge to reorganise your travelling schedule?

The biggest difference between what I did and what most golfers did was that I did a lot of trans-continental travel. I did India, Europe, India-America, India-Europe and India-America. That took a heavy toll on my body as I was constantly travelling. I did six trips of more than 10-hour time difference, and I then did six or more with more than four-hour time difference. That kind of caught up with me towards the end of the year. Which is why I will be moving to the States, for the next six months. I will base myself probably somewhere in Florida. I’ll play very little in Europe and focus mainly on tournaments in America.

Why America and not Europe?

Because it is the biggest tour in the world. There are a lot more world-rankings points, better prize money and sponsors, better players and more opportunities. There are four World Championships and four majors, and out of these eight events, six are played in America. If I want to do well in the majors and the PGA, then I have to play in America and get used to it. Ultimately, that is what counts.

When was the decision to move to America taken?

It was a matter of time. As soon as I got my card for the PGA Tour, this would have to be the obvious move, because that is probably the goal. Once you’ve targeted the States, you work towards maximising that. At least for the first six-seven months, I’ll be based in America.

Now that you have decided to shift base to the U.S. the results will be better...

The only thing you can control is doing your best. You want to prepare in the best manner possible, and go in with as much positivity.

And you would like to replicate the results you had last year...

I would like to better that actually in terms of my rankings, performances. I would like to reach the top-25 mark — that is my first goal.

If I go out and have a good first three months, I could get there. Sport is very fickle. Last year, I achieved most of my targets. In the years before that, I couldn’t achieve most of my targets. That doesn’t deter you from setting targets and working towards them. I am going to do the same thing again.

Arjun Atwal is also based in America?

Arjun still lives in the States. Jeev (Milkha Singh) played for a year and a half there; he was in the top-50 in the world but did not have full exemption (to play on the PGA Tour). The only person who had full exemption was Arjun. After Arjun, I am the only person to get full exemption.

There is the PGA Tour, Asian Tour and the European Tour. If you are in the top-50, you get through to all the majors. You also get 3-4 invitations. In that case, you get to play around 10-12 events. When you have full exemption, you can play all the 20-30 events on the PGA Tour. I am going to be a member of the PGA Tour.

How was it growing up?

Easy it was (laughs). Initiation was easy. You know the concept of golf in the Army is different from the concept of golf outside. It is one of the most common pastimes in the Army. I would cycle down to the golf course five minutes away and hit a few balls when my dad was playing with other officers. Whenever I hit a good shot, my father’s colleague would say, ‘Good shot Chottu! Come play a few holes with us’. That’s how it started for me. (But) I was never excited by that.

The first time I played a junior tournament was as a 12-year-old in Kolkata in 1999. My maternal grandparents lived in Kolkata. I visited them and played a tournament. The first time I saw over 50 kids between 8 and 17 years (playing golf). ‘Wow’ I said. Earlier, I was the only kid playing golf!

That was when it became fun. Now I was hanging with kids my age. It gave me an excuse to get away from school, gave me an excuse to travel. It excited me. I wanted to do this. My ultimate goal was to play for India. To wear the India jacket, try to win a medal. That was my goal, growing up. I accomplished it when I was 17, in the team event of the Asian junior championships. Apart from me, the team comprised Gaganjeet Bhullar, Ajitesh Argal and Himmat Rai.

That’s when I turned amateur. At that stage, I went from being a ‘full-time student part-time golfer’ to a ‘part-time student full-time golfer’. The transition happened after I finished school.

When did you move to Bangalore?

I moved to Bangalore in May 2004, straight after my Standard XII exams. I moved because of coach Vijay Divecha sir. My parents discussed with Vijay and he said Anirban has to do this full time. ‘He can’t come two weekends (to Bangalore) in a month and go back — there is no continuity.’

Training at the Eagleton course, Bangalore proved to be the turning point for you?

That was a turning point. Bangalore is my second home. That was the most important phase of my life — I went from being a decent junior to the best amateur golfer.

I had never worked continuously with a coach and with such good infrastructure. I had never given 100 per cent, which was not possible when I was at school. Suddenly I found myself waking up at around six in the morning and going to the gym; playing in the afternoon and going back to the gym. I think, for the first time I felt I had everything I needed. I had lot of time to train. The amount of time I had as an amateur was crucial. You will never get that time once you turn professional.

You have competed in seven majors while Jeev has the most at 13. Will emulating Jeev be your target?

Not really. What matters is not how many majors you play, but how you play. For me the focus is on playing majors regularly. I’ve played six majors in a row — the last two of 2014 and all four of 2015. As of now, I am actually in three of the four majors this year. If I keep playing in all the majors year-in year-out, I will get used to it.

Can an Indian ever win a major?

Yes, absolutely. I can win a major. I gave enough evidence of that last year at Whistling Straits. Yes, I know I finished fifth; I know I wasn’t in contention going in on the final day because Jason Day had gone ahead of us. The fact that it wasn’t too far gives me a lot of confidence. It reinforces the belief that deep down, I can. I know I need to train harder, be comfortable in conditions, in the grasses, in the galleries and things like that.

What about the pressure?

I don’t have an issue with that.

What do you think of golf making its debut at the Rio Olympics?

I look at it as a golden opportunity. Simply because we’ve grown up never having that in our thoughts. If I say it’s always been a dream to play in the Olympics, I would be lying. We never knew that such an opportunity might arise. Now that we do have that opportunity, let’s make the most of it. It can make a massive difference to the sport. If I get a medal in Rio, that would be great. I see it as a chance to make a difference to the sport.

What about your debut in the U.S. Open in 2012?

It was a fantastic feeling. I was like a kid in a candy shop. All your idols were there — (Tiger) Woods, (Ernie) Els, you name them, and they were all there.

Now I am good friends with them. Back then, it was once-in-a-lifetime experience.

What is your take on Tiger Woods’ comeback?

Physically and mentally, he looks weak. He has had three surgeries on the same spot on his back. He looks unlikely to equal Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.

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SHORT TAKES

Your favourite car?

I don’t have any one favourite car. I’d love to eventually experience driving the Formula One car.

How do you enjoy a drive?

I enjoyed driving in America. In Bangalore it is no joy driving on the streets!! I love speed, thrill but also realise the need to drive with caution.

Your childhood memories?

So many — mostly all golf-related. When I watched Arjun Atwal win the Indian Open in 1999. That was the first time I watched a professional event when I was 12. It was an eye-opening experience.

Holiday destination

Ananda in the Himalayas, near Rishikesh.

Favourite gizmos

Mobile and laptop, they are with me all the time.

How do you unwind?

I sleep a lot and play poker with my friends.

Your fitness mantras

Eat healthy, practise meditation, gym and yoga few times a week. Have your own fitness routine and do swimming.