‘Golf is a beautiful game; It’s you versus yourself’

K. MURALI KUMAR

“I am at a point in my career wherein I need to really increase the intensity of work on my game and fitness to get to the next level. I am looking to do that over the coming months,” says Anirban Lahiri in a chat with G. Viswanath.

India’s top professional Anirban Lahiri has climbed from No. 111 in 2008 to a career high of No. 3 in 2013 on the Asian Pro Tour.

Lahiri was in Mumbai for the Rs. 1.2-crore prize money nine-team Louis Philippe Cup. Talking to Sportstar, the 26-year-old golfer, based in Bangalore, said, “My goal is to make a breakthrough on the European Tour (or even Japan) at the end of this year. I cannot do much now because I don’t have a status. I will have two or three opportunities in the pro-sanctions. But I think I have to go to the Qualifying Schools, play well and get my card through that process. I am up for it. The impatience is there now for me to get there and prove myself. When the time comes, I will definitely be prepared.”

Excerpts:

Question: Indian golfers are making news. There are a number of good professionals. How would you appraise the Indian golf scene now?

Answer: I think it is transiting from one generation to another. We have been in the transition phase for two or three years — Gaganjeet (Bhullar), Himmat (Rai) and myself. We will see another transition in two or three years time with Rasheed (Khan), Chikkarangappa and Angad (Cheema) stepping in. I think it has been good. We have grown up seeing Jeev Milkha Singh, Jyoti Randhawa and Arjun Atwal. And Shiv Kapur has been in between the two generations. It is good to see the younger generation stepping up and doing well. I think we are moving in the right direction.

You and Himmat appeared on the scene after Jeev and company. Are you satisfied with the success you have achieved and the progress made after turning pro in 2007?

I would think so although I would definitely say that my progress was slow initially. The first couple of years were not as (good as) I would have liked them to be, but they have contributed to making me the player I am today. The fact that I underperformed or played below my expectations early in my professional career only made me work and focus harder on my game. That has helped me to get to where I am now, and that is probably a couple of steps from where I was six years ago.

I have a long way to go. I have been fortunate enough to get a lot of experience with good golfers, good courses and big events and I feel like I am ready to move to the next stage, probably Europe or Japan, and the US eventually. I am at a point in my career wherein I need to really increase the intensity of work on my game and fitness to get to the next level. I am looking to do that over the coming months.

You have played the Asian Tour and once the Open Championship…

It is a step-by-step progression. I think there is a right time for each and every person. You cannot rush. A lot of players peak early and a lot more, late. One can turn around and say that Steve Stricker should have been the player now as he was in his twenties, but he is not. Steve Stricker is playing now as he was in his late thirties. You cannot force something onto someone because the world may think so and so.

We don’t live in an ideal world. I am not the only professional who is working hard. There are 300-plus who are working equally hard with the same goals, same ambitions and same dreams. What I have learnt from my career so far is the virtue of patience. You have to be patient and keep plugging away on what you need to do because the first thing that happens when you are not getting success or the improvements soon enough is that you start getting impatient and doubts creep in. It’s a negative cycle. There’s a positive cycle also. But I feel that the more you remain in a neutral cycle, the more you are likely to progress. I have had to learn the virtue of patience the hard way. If I can get there (European or Japan Tours) this year, it would be great, if I cannot then the next year or the following year. But if I believe that I am going to get there and be able to play at that level, I know I will.

You have not felt the lack of opportunities though by way of competitions and sponsorships?

Well, I look at it this way: it’s having lot of opportunities and being able to play your best when you have those opportunities. It’s one thing to be in form and playing small events and another to be in top form in pro sanctioned events and make it count. Gaganjeet gave us a very good example of it last year. He played the Avantha Masters; he was in form, made it count and got his card up. A lot of time what happens is, when you are in form you may not have the opportunities at that point in time. It’s a funny thing; form comes and goes. You have to keep working hard to get it back. At the same time, I am very happy that I have been able to up my level of consistency. That’s what will serve me over a period of time.

You have been a pro for close to seven years now. How would you appraise your progress sheet?

It’s — being an amateur and a pro — is so different and this is something I have been explaining to Chikka (Chikkarangappa), who made his transition last year. As an amateur, you play 10 or 12 events nationally. If you are playing for the squad — which you should be if you are a top amateur — then you are playing three or four weeks abroad. So, you are playing a total of 14 or 15 weeks.

Last year, I played 31 tournaments, which means 31 weeks of competition. This is more than twice what I played as an amateur. It, basically, means you have that much less time to work on your game, less time to work on fitness and less time to prepare. The 20-odd weeks that you get off, you are trying to recondition your body, rest, trying to improve your game and also trying to take a break, holiday and keep yourself fresh. So it’s very different when you turn pro. It becomes more about managing yourself and that itself is another skill. But it’s very important to develop the playing skills too. The one thing amateur golfers need to understand is that while being an amateur you have to get all your basics and fundamentals in place. Once you turn professional, you are not going to get time to work on it. I was fortunate that I could do that as an amateur myself.

But as a professional golfer you are still learning a lot while being on the course for 31 weeks. You are competing against yourself and the course, which is impartial…

Golf by nature is a beautiful game. It’s you versus yourself. And the golf course is what you are playing on. What happens over a period of 31 weeks or the weeks you play in a year is that you will go through phases where you may be in sublime form and also struggle a lot. So everything goes into your experience kitty. It’s like gaining a big bank of experience. You understand about yourself: like how do I react when I am playing well and not so well, how do I feel mentally when I am playing well, my state of mind when I am unwell and playing golf, when I am feeling fit and when I travel for five hours and carry jetlag. So the situations and conditions are different…different time lag and weather conditions and golf courses. Well, I am learning so much as a professional; I would continue to do so. Every shot and round of golf is different. When I play in similar conditions, I would know what I have to do from my previous experiences and that would be critical.

Golf is a unique sport (because of the different natures of playing against yourself and the course) and hence would you say the execution of skills could fluctuate wildly?

Absolutely. I returned two weeks ago from the pro tour and I could have easily said I have been in very good form in the last six months. I met my coach about 10-12 days back. He looked at my golf swing and said ‘….oh…there’s so much going wrong’, and that there’s so much I need to improve and everything is off from what we had worked on six months back. He said there are so many chinks in my swing that need to be fixed. This is what happens (on a long tour) because you are in a tournament mode, you try to maximise the output you have…swinging, putting and all that. When you are practising, you are trying to get your technique bulletproof. And having been in the tournament mode for six months, I have to work doubly hard now in a short period of time to recover the same (basics and technique) that I have always had. Yes, the skill levels fluctuate. They go up and go down and for us they fluctuate even more. What I have learnt is that despite your skill levels fluctuating, it’s your mind that gets you through all the events. That’s where professional golf is different from amateur golf.

Would you say the prize money in PGTI is sufficient with enough competitions?

I think at any point in time if someone says this is enough, it’s actually not. There’s need for more sponsors, more competitions for the quality of events to go up. The hands of the amateur body is tight… they don’t do this for a living. They go to school and college. It’s not easy for them to abdicate everything else that they are doing in life and just give it to golf. Not yet. That’s what you do as a professional. So if you have 15 amateur events, it’s not going to help. The amateurs need to live their regular life as well. For us, if we have 40 weeks to choose from, 30 weeks is fantastic, you can pick and choose the events and also the courses. So the bigger the tournaments get, the better for us at PGTI.

What about the quality of golfers coming through?

It’s always better to have more golfers. Having said that, you look at the infrastructure and the resources we have and compare it to the quality of golfers we are able to produce. Hats off to the individuals behind getting the players to where they are! There’s always a team, coach, a parent, a trainer, a mind coach who is always helping us as professionals and taking us to the next level. These people have managed to do it despite the system. So I would like to think how good it can be if the government, sponsors come in and give the sport the support it needs. And if this happens the quality of golfers will multiply.