Calm and composed

Anirban Lahiri held his nerves to win the Hero Indian Open.-R. V. MOORTHY

It is time for Anirban Lahiri to enjoy his twin successes. But no one expects him to go berserk in celebrations. Lahiri has a cool head. And that’s what has brought him this far in such quick time. By Rakesh Rao.

Over the past two decades, quite a few Indian golfers have managed to catch the eye of the world’s elite. The path charted by Jeev Milkha Singh in the early 1990s has now been followed by many more young Indian golfers.

The latest addition to this list of newsmakers is Anirban Lahiri. After a steady rise in his world rankings, since turning pro in 2007, the Bangalore-based talent has now taken one giant leap.

Back-to-back victories on the European Tour events, in the space of three weeks in February, has perched Lahiri at the 34th place in the World rankings. Never before has an Indian started a European Tour event as the top-ranked player in the field, and Lahiri managed to justify this top billing by winning the USD1.5 million-Hero Indian Open in New Delhi recently.

What made his triumph special was the manner in which Lahiri made light of a seven-stroke final-day deficit to beat overnight leader and compatriot S. S. P. Chawrasia in the playoff. In fact, a fortnight back, Lahiri scripted a similar last day blitz to claim the USD3 million-Malaysian Open.

Starting the final round five strokes behind the leader, Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger, Lahiri eventually won by a shot. Wiesberger held a two-shot lead over Spain’s Alejandro Canizares heading into the final round, but the Austrian faltered, posting a two-over 74 to finish second at 15-under.

The results have improved Lahiri’s rankings from 73 to 34, ensuring a direct entry for the Augusta Masters. The Masters, one of the four Majors of the season, allows the top-50 ranked players a direct place in the main draw.

“At the start of the week, I knew that if I put in a good performance it would pretty much secure my place in the Masters. It is fantastic. Now the whole world is open to me. I’m really excited. This is what dreams are made of,” said Lahiri, soon after becoming the eighth Indian to win the national Open. “This is something that will take some time to sink in. I have to stay focussed and ride the momentum. I got a slice of luck and that doesn’t happen often in everyone’s career. I’m going to try to keep playing well and see what happens,” said the soft-spoken Lahiri.

This was also the time for Lahiri to acknowledge the influences of his predecessors. “Our entire generation is inspired by players like Jeev (Milkha Singh), Arjun (Atwal) and Jyoti (Randhawa). Thanks to these three players, we youngsters have the confidence of doing well without ever getting intimidated.”

In fact, Lahiri, 27, now has seven wins on the Asian Tour — more than Jeev (four), Atwal (three) and Jyoti (two) when they were of his age.

Jeev, holder of six Asian Tour titles, was excited about Lahiri’s progress. “It’s good to see young Indian players doing well, especially Anirban. These kids have more knowledge and awareness about fitness and what they need to work on. They have the right guidance by their coaches and they work hard at it. That’s the main reason why these young players are doing well. In the future, I think we would see more young players coming out from India and they would be inside the top-50 in the world,” said Jeev.

More than the results, Lahiri’s cool head in trying circumstances has truly set him apart. Known to use meditation to “become a better person” for the last 10 years, Lahiri has been showing nerves of steel in tough situations.

“Honestly, it is hard to come to terms. Six months back, I was at the Qualifying School, so it feels like I’ve skipped a couple of steps to reach where I’m now,” was how Lahiri chose to put it, as he recalled firing two birdies on the last five holes to come through the Qualifying School. By winning twice on the European Tour in his ‘rookie’ season as Qualifying School graduate, Lahiri has also emulated Gordon Brand Jr. (1982) and Jose Maria Olazabal (1986).

Being a multiple-winner allows Lahiri a three-year playing rights on the European Tour.

Now, it is natural for the young Indian to aim for the PGA Tour in America. “My aim is to win in America, to play well in the Majors. That will be the true test,” said Lahiri.

But before heading to the world’s richest and toughest tour, Lahiri needs to spend some more time playing in Europe, in search of a maiden title outside Asia.

But now it is time for him to enjoy the twin successes. But no one expects Lahiri to go berserk in celebrations. He has a cool head. And that’s what has brought Lahiri this far in such quick time.