Punching above his weight

Anirban Lahiri... on an upswing.-R.V. MOORTHY

What makes Anirban Lahiri tick? Shreedutta Chidananda finds out.

The last seven months have been a whirlwind for Anirban Lahiri. In what is his rookie season on the European Tour, he won the Maybank Malaysian Open and the Hero Indian Open — both co-sanctioned events — and rose to a career-best ranking of 33. In July he tied for 30th place at The Open before creating history at the PGA Championship, when his tied-fifth-place became the best-ever finish by an Indian golfer in a Major. Lahiri is not new to the circuit but this performance made the world sit up and take notice. As much as he insists that his rise has been a gradual one — and there’s no denying that he’s right — history may well come to regard August 16, 2015 as a landmark day for Indian golf.

“It’s hard to put a finger on it,” he says of his success this year. “It’s been a build-up; it’s not something that’s happened overnight. When I won the Malaysian Open, I jumped to 37 in the world. A lot of surprised journalists asked me: ‘How did this happen overnight?’ I said, ‘The world rankings are such that you can’t go to 37 overnight. It’s based on a cumulative points average system.’ So if you look at my performances in the last two and a half years, I’ve had almost 15 or 20 top 10s. Everybody looks at the meteoric rise. It’s not a meteoric rise. In my mind, it’s been a very gradual one.”

Had he made par on the final hole at Whistling Straits, instead of a bogey, Lahiri would’ve tied for fourth, with the difference in prize money enough to earn him a PGA Tour card for next year.

As it stands, he will now play the Web.com Tour Finals and try to earn his card through those four events.

Lahiri says his achievement was not really a surprise to him. It is a claim born not out of arrogance but confidence. “I wanted to win the tournament. I don’t say that now because I finished fifth and if I said that I went in expecting myself to win, that would not be the truth either. I came in with a lot of confidence, because I played well at The Open, I had a top five in Switzerland (Omega European Masters) and I felt like I was in good form. I felt I could actually get up there and try and contend on the weekend. I’m happy I managed to do that. I can’t really say that I was expecting it but I definitely never thought that it wasn’t possible,” he says.

Vijay Divecha, Lahiri’s long-time coach in Bangalore, believes Lahiri’s desire to work on his game and tailor it to suit different needs has been integral to his success. “We work on our technique on a continuous basis without being scared,” he says. “A lot of top players fear making any changes to their technique because they are scared it might do something to their game. And they remain where they are. We have discovered that if you want to be finding the next level, you have to do better than what you’ve done before. Nothing has happened overnight. We’ve been at it for 14 years now. It’s the years of hard work that’s paying off.”

As Lahiri has risen up the ladder, he has continually adapted. “We’ve learnt to deal with the different levels to which we’re going,” Divecha says. “Adapting to that level itself is a learning that has to take place before. If you haven’t done it before, it’s going to be harder for you to find it when you reach there. When he first went to America, it took him time to get familiar with the conditions, to get used to what he needs to do there. The courses, conditions and grasses are totally different.”

What has also grown is Lahiri’s belief that he belongs in the big league. At the Malaysian Open, he had to prevail over Lee Westwood to win; at The Open and the PGA Championship, he punched considerably above his perceived weight. “It was only a matter of time. Over the last two months I’ve been telling him: ‘We’re on the threshold now. So be patient. You’re always playing in a field where the top 50 or 100 players are playing. This is another level. It will come when you least expect it,”’ says Divecha.

Lahiri says his goal is now to break into the top 20 by the end of the year. With him currently ranked 39 (as of August 23), it is not a target out of reach.

Underpinning all the other factors for the 28-year-old’s growth has been his own discipline and commitment.

“If you want to ever go there, you’ve got to have a firm belief in yourself,” says Divecha. “You have to have a good work ethic. That hunger to perform has to be inherent. It can’t be taught.”