The best golfer in India played before an enormous gallery with the kind of buzz that is rare for his country. Anirban Lahiri wound up the winner, a day he won’t forget.
Except that he wasn’t the star that day.
Tiger Woods was in town.
Lahiri and Shiv Kapur, who played college golf at Purdue, were asked to play a three-hole skins game at the end of an exhibition at Delhi Golf Club. Lahiri started playing golf about the time Woods won his first Masters, and Woods became a golfing hero.
“Meeting him in person, he had a strong, positive aura about him,” Lahiri said in a telephone interview from his home in Bangladore. “It was nice to interact with him and pick his brain and get some perspective how he goes about his golf. He’s been an idol growing up, a larger than life figure.”
That was a year ago, and the 27-year-old Lahiri could not have imagined how much would change since then.
Lahiri will be at Doral next week for his first World Golf Championship in America. Woods, who was No. 1 in the world when he played the exhibition in India, didn’t qualify. Back surgery, a change in swing coaches and poor play has dropped him to No. 70 in the world.
Lahiri, the son of an Army doctor, won the Malaysian Open for his first European Tour victory. Two weeks later, he won the Hero Indian Open that effectively locked up a spot in the Masters. He will be only the third Indian to compete at Augusta National.
He is No. 34 in the world — just ahead of Brandt Snedeker and Ian Poulter — and is No. 5 in the Presidents Cup standings. Not bad for a guy who only a few months ago was in Q-school trying to get his European Tour card.
“He’s pretty talented,” said Arjun Atwal, who grew up in Calcutta and remains the only Indian to win on the PGA Tour. “He’s a lot more mature than 27. He’s got this thing about him that when he wins, it wants to win the next one. I haven’t seen that in as many players.”
As much attention as Woods brought to India last year in a paid exhibition with the head of Hero Motor, players like Lahiri, Singh and Atwal can have a profound effect on a golfing nation still in its infancy. Lahiri remembers Atwal winning the Indian Open when it was part of the Asian Tour. To see someone like Singh become the first European Tour winner from India, to make three appearances in the Masters and reach as high as No. 29 in the world, is inspiring.
“It’s always about doing what these guys have done,” Lahiri said. “Play in the majors. Play in America. Try to win globally. And make Indian golf more recognizable.”
This will take time, though Lahiri has a chance to become the face of golf in his country.
He was helped by his background. Lahiri grew up in a city of nearly 9 million people and only four golf courses. “That’s probably not very many for America,” he said, “but it’s quite a few for India.”
He said a large number of golf courses belong to the Army, and his father picked up the game. Lahiri was attracted to the sport as a way to spend more time with him, and he fell in love with golf because it matched his introspective personality.
“Golf is like meditation,” he said. “It’s the reason I love playing the game. For that day or week, the rest of the world ceases to exist. I go into my happy place, which is the golf course. It’s a very special place for me to do my thing and play golf.”
Lahiri never went to a golf academy. He began working with Vijay Divecha as a teenager, and that has been his only coach. Singh came to America and played at Abilene Christian in Texas. Lahiri didn’t inquire of American colleges. He studied at home, earning a degree in commerce. He speaks English, Hindi and Bengali, and then he learned Punjabi because most of the amateur golf he played was in that region of India.
He won his first Asian Tour event in 2011, and he had won at least every year since then. But the last month still is hard to digest. Along with getting in World Golf Championships and the Masters, Lahiri only needs to stay in the top 60 for the next three months to qualify for the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. He is writing tournaments in America with hopes of playing more.
“They’re all just names on a piece of paper right now,” he said. “I can play this event or that event, this major or that major. Once I start competing regularly in the big events, that will really start sinking in. And it’s awesome.”
He played the British Open in 2012 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes and made a hole-in-one on the third round. He tied for 31st, but kept thinking if he had just saved three more shots, he would have been in the top 10. He missed the cut at Royal Liverpool a year ago.
As for the Masters?
He has seen it only on television, mostly the back nine. He remembers the signature holes, such as the par-3 16th and Amen Corner. A friend in Delhi called last week and invited him to play the Masters on his video game.
Lahiri has long-term hopes. His ultimate destination is the PGA Tour, and he’d like to see more players from India behind him. S.S.P. Chawrasia, whom he beat at the Hero Indian Open, is the next highest-ranked player from India at No. 169. Kapur, Atwal, Jyoti Randhawa and Gaganjeet Bhullar all have played either WGCs or majors.
“Jeev and myself were the first generation of players who came out of India and were the first to win outside India,” Atwal said. “These guys have seen it done. And there’s going to more of them. For Anirban’s generation, they are not afraid. He really believes he can win.”
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