The Indian at Augusta4 min read . Updated: 01 Apr 2015, 07:21 PM IST
Anirban Lahiri's quest at the Masters begins next week on the back of a brilliant run
In 2009, Anirban Lahiri, despite nearly three years as a pro, was unable to string together a win. He would come close, but not quite close the deal. He had just zoomed from somewhere around 10th to the No.2 spot at the DLF Masters. But it was still a second. He was planning to take two weeks off and prepare for the Hero Indian Open. But just as he was walking out of the door at the DLF Golf and Country Club in Gurgaon, Haryana, he decided to play at another local event (the Haryana Open) in Panchkula the following week and take only one week off.
It was a decision he wouldn’t regret because it was at Panchkula that he achieved his breakthrough win.
Recalling this years later, Lahiri would say, “It was a big monkey off my back. It was a wonderful feeling after winning my first-ever professional title. I had waited a long time and I had been on the threshold of a win several times in the past but not really got there."
Fast forward to 2014-15: After a fairly successful year on the Asian Tour, during which he won twice and finished in the top 10 on six other occasions, Lahiri shifted focus to a higher level, by attempting to qualify for the European Tour through the gruelling six-round Qualifying School in Spain. He was in the top 2 for the first four days, even led after the second round, before the tiredness of a long season caught up. He finished 17th but earned the coveted card. He finished the year as No.64, the best of his career. He planned his European tour schedule for 2015 and began his quest to get into the top 50—the magic number which opens the door to all the big tournaments around the world. Then things changed, once again.
A modest start at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship (15-18 January) was followed by a sensational win in Malaysia (5-8 February) for his first European Tour victory and catapulted him into the top 50. Two weeks later, he won again, this time at the Indian Open, and he was now No.34. Now he will take the field at the Augusta Masters (6-12 April in Georgia, US), only the third Indian to do so, against the best in the game.
“It’s been a big step up from where I was, in November-December," Lahiri says. “Obviously, my schedule has done a 360, and I’ve had to sit down and look at that very seriously, and the very real possibility of playing a lot of golf in America and having a realistic chance of trying to get my card up here, which is obviously one of my goals.
“And Augusta is one of those events everybody dreams of playing. And not a lot of Indians have played the event, so it’s very special for me personally. It’s very special for everybody back home."
But Lahiri, like the pro he is, is playing down the excitement, trading it for the calm focus he will need on the greens.
“If I was just a young professional, say, two years into my career, it would be very easy for me to jump ahead," says the 27-year-old. “But I know that that’s probably the one thing that I have to avoid, so I’m just taking it one step at a time, soaking it all in, trying to gain as much experience and learn. Obviously (I am) excited, looking forward to Augusta, but I’m just taking it one step at a time."
Lahiri also understands the impact he could make by playing at Augusta, this year’s Presidents Cup or next year’s Olympics. On the eve of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship in early March in Miami, he said, “I think it’s very difficult to separate any of those events. To give you perspective, when I was growing up, the landmark events for golf in India were every time Jeev (Milkha Singh) won globally, and when Arjun (Atwal) won Wyndham.
“I think whether it’s playing in the Masters or the Olympics or the Presidents Cup, I think more than just being a part of the people that make the event, what matters more is how I play. For me to actually show up at Augusta and play some of my best golf and try and make something out of the event, that will probably grow the game more than just me playing in it."
Singh, who was once ranked as high as No.28—the best by an Indian ever—believes Lahiri has the potential to go all the way. “He could win even bigger; in the US and who knows even a Major," he says. At the same time, he smiles and adds, “I feel I still have a few years of good golf left in me and I can still make it at the Majors." Singh played the Masters three years in a row from 2007-2009 and his tied 25th is the best by an Indian at Augusta. His tied ninth at PGA in 2008 is the best by an Indian at any Major and he has played the most Majors by an Indian, 13 in all.
Soon after Lahiri won the Indian Open, Atwal, the only Indian to win on the PGA Tour and the only Indian other than Singh to play at Augusta so far, remarked, “These kids are good. What they are doing at 27 or 28, we (him, Singh and others) did it at 35, 36."
He told Lahiri the same recently, when they were playing together, saying, “So you’ve got that much more time to outdo us and outdo yourself."
“I think that is probably the one thing that I have to take to heart, and I have to believe that, because I have that time," Lahiri says. “I’m getting the exposure, I’m getting the opportunities at a much younger age than they did and for me that is the greatest gift, time."