He belongs in the big league

Anirban Lahiri believes he can not only play in the big league but also emerge as a serious contender for the titles, writes Rakesh Rao.

In just under two decades, Indian golfers have covered a lot of distance to make their presence felt on various Tours. They still have a long way to go. Following a series of encouraging performances, mostly on the Asian Tour, some of the home-grown talents have won away from the continent as well.

A path-breaker like Jeev Milkha Singh brought self-belief among the Indians that they could also win international events on foreign soil. Players like Arjun Atwal, Jyoti Randhawa, Shiv Kapur, to name a few, have contributed a great deal in raising the profile of Indian golf.

More recently, Anirban Lahiri joined S. S. P. Chowrasia as a two-time winner on the European Tour.

Of the present lot, Lahiri is clearly the one to watch out for. His form is yet to be consistent but what makes him different is his immense self-belief. He believes he can not only play in the big league but also emerge as a serious contender for the titles.

This February, Lahiri made the golfing world sit up and take notice of his prowess by claiming the Malaysia Open and the India Open, both co-sanctioned on the European Tour. This helped him break into the top-40 of the World rankings, though for a brief period. At present, he is ranked 61, but tops the Asian Tour money list by a fair margin.

Lahiri’s latest outing at The Open gave a fair indication of his potential. Though he finished tied-30th — his best finish at The Open — after rounds of 66-70-71-72 and collected 55,925 euros for the week, Lahiri provided plenty of excitement until his inexperience pulled him down.

Notably, for the first three rounds at the revered Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, Lahiri carded sub-par rounds. On the final day, after the event spilled over to Monday (only the second time in 144 editions since 1860) due to inclement weather conditions, Lahiri raised hopes of a best-ever finish by an Indian at a Major. However, Lahiri dropped four shots in the space of five holes on the back nine and signed off with a birdie for a par score.

In fact, out of Lahiri’s 10 bogeys during the week, nine came between the 13th and the 17th holes of the testing course where he enjoyed a bogey-free second round. Seven bogeys against two birdies on the back nine on the last two rounds also tell a story.

Looking back at the week that provided delight and disappointments, Lahiri sounded pragmatic.

“I should have been two or three shots better, but I will learn from this experience. On the back nine, I kept finding the fairway bunkers and putting myself in bad position. From those positions, I did not hit the right shots. The inexperience showed and in some cases I did not hit the right club and I did not find the right line on some of the shots. There was a lot of misjudgement.”

Lahiri came into the year’s third Major without being in any great form. He did not let the thought of playing at the Old Course intimidate him. Lahiri was joined by his parents, wife Ipsa, coach Vijay Divecha and regular caddie Rajeev and that clearly helped.

Before the start, Lahiri said, “This is my first time in St. Andrews and I already like how the course sets itself up. It’s nice to be here and you want to be here as often as you can.”

Known to do his homework well, Lahiri’s strategy on tackling the course was, more on less, in place. “Here you have to hit to the left, anything on the right can be a problem. That suits my game because I tend to hit to the left more. You have to favour the left side for most of the tee shots, which is my natural shot shape. There are a few scoring holes out there and you got to get through the first few holes strongly.” Indeed, on the first hole of the course, Lahiri managed birdies on the first three rounds. Even on holes four, seven, nine and 14, Lahiri managed two birdies each during the week. But three bogeys each on the 13th and 17th holes undid a great part of his good work.

It was clear that during the week, Lahiri played better than what the scores suggested. Looking at the positives, he said, “I hadn’t shot a single round over par at a Major before this. That is a massive positive. I was not in great form before I came here, having missed a few cuts. Now after this, I feel my form is returning and that is a huge positive. Overall, I played decently, though I cannot say I played well.”