Tonight the final round of the Hero World Challenge—a limited field event featuring the top 18 players in the world and sponsored by Hero MotoCorp—will take place in Nassau in the Bahamas. At the time of writing this column, with the weekend rounds still to go, the leader-board presents a familiar sight: Jordan Spieth, the precocious American, co-leads the field with an astonishing cumulative 11-under-par matched by the mercurial Bill Haas. Haas didn’t get into the tournament on rankings, but rather on one of the two sponsor’s exemption—the other one going to none other than Anirban Lahiri.
Unlike Haas, the Bengaluru lad hasn’t been able to capitalise on the opportunity and lies tied-14th with a score of six-under. Lahiri hit the ball well enough on the first two days, but just hasn’t been able to get a measure of the greens: “If my mum had putted, she would have shot 65,” Lahiri remarked wryly after his second-round two-under 70.
Besides Lahiri’s presence, the tournament has special relevance for Indian fans because it’s the only tournament of this stature to be sponsored by an Indian company. Last year, the two-wheeler giant coughed up $3.5 million (Rs 21 crore) to sponsor the event for four years and signed up Woods as ‘global corporate partner’—a four-year deal, which will reportedly fetch Woods $32 million (R250 crore) over four years. That’s $46 million for a four-year period, give or take a few millions, making Hero MotoCorp second only to Nike when it comes to Woods’ sponsors. It was the biggest endorsement deal for the golf star since his very public sex scandal in 2008 and ensuing exodus of sponsors in 2009.
Now, Woods’ star was in decline even when the deal was signed, but there were indications that he had been signed on for his celebrity status rather than his performance on the golf course. Pawan Munjal echoed as much in an interview to Associated Press last year: “He (Woods) cuts across the globe—non-golfers, golfers, everyone. I’m not looking at the athlete. I think he is probably one of the most famous celebrities… He is going to add a huge amount of value to the brand Hero, which, clearly, is going global in its intent and with its product and brand.”
In an ironic turn of events, Woods chose the event’s press conference this year to finally concede that his playing days might be coming to an end. Okay, so he didn’t say it was curtains, but admitted, for the first time ever, that there was no timetable for his return to competitive golf. And given the golf legend’s stoic demeanour and unfailing optimism over the years, when he’s made a habit of bouncing back from physical and other adversities, that’s no small admission.
This time, it’s purely physical: two successive back surgeries after his last competitive appearance at the Wnydham Championship—that he very nearly won, sparking a wave of optimism about a resurgence— have forced the 14-time Major-winner to concede that the only physical activity he can do at the moment is walk gingerly. “I walk. And I walk… I’m just walking and that’s it,” he said at the Hero Challenge pre-event press con.
Woods also outlined a shift of priorities when he said his first goal was to be able to bend over to pick up a soccer ball when playing with his children. “I would like to be able to get to that first,” he said. “If I can get to that, we can start talking about golf. There is no timetable for this and that’s been the hardest mindset adjustment…” he said. “Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? I don’t know, so that’s been hard.”
Even more telling was Woods’ admission that he might have finally let go of his lifetime ambition of matching Nicklaus’ 18 Major titles. “I think pretty much everything beyond this has been—will be—gravy. I’ve passed Jack (Nicklaus) in the all-time win list, just shy of Sam (Snead). I passed Sam basically a decade ago in major championships, but I’m still shy of Jack’s. So I’ve had a pretty good career for my 20s and 30s. For my 20 years out here, I think, I’ve achieved a lot and if that’s all it entails, then I’ve had a pretty good run. But I’m hoping that’s not it.
I’m hoping that I can get back out here and compete against these guys. I really do miss it.” If he manages to do that, it’ll be one of the biggest comebacks in the history of the game and just the sort of superhumanly feat that fans have always associated with Woods. But it probably won’t happen, and that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
Perhaps it’s finally time to say, “Thank you for the memories Tiger.”
Indian fans, in any case, can distract themselves by pinning their collective ambitions on Lahiri who, going by his breakthrough year, is on the cusp of something really special. Will he make it to the ranks of the top 10 players in the world? Will he equal Arjun Atwal’s feat of winning on the PGA Tour? Better still, is it possible he’ll win a Major Championship? Any and all of these feats will enshrine Lahiri in the history of Indian golf—to go where no Indian has ever gone before, and you can’t say that about too many things now. No pressure Anirban, just putt better than your mum.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game