Incheon, South Korea, 2015. Anirban Lahiri came to the 18th hole of his singles match against Chris Kirk desperately seeking redemption for his inability to win a single point in the bi-annual America versus International President’s Cup. Lahiri, the first Indian ever to play in the Ryder Cup-style team event, had lost his previous two matches at the event and, finally, had a three-and-a-half-footer on the final green to halve the match. Kirk had already knocked in a tricky 15-foot downhill putt to put the pressure back on the Indian. Lahiri, a good putter, was confident and struck a firm putt, but the ball hit the right edge of the cup and lipped out, handing Kirk victory and the American squad a pivotal point. The Internationals, until that moment, were tantalisingly close to a rare victory in an event that’s been dominated by the Americans who’ve won it on all but one occasion since 1998. That missed putt sealed the fate of Lahiri’s squad, which demoralisingly went on to lose the Cup yet again.
Lahiri has since spoken on a number of occasions about his ‘unfinished business’ at the President’s Cup and perhaps that’s why South African Nick Price offered him a spot on the 2017 team as a ‘Captain’s Pick’.
The tournament began for Lahiri in depressing fashion. After being benched on Thursday, the Bengaluru pro began his campaign on Friday by ditching his very first drive into the water. Playing with Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, Lahiri looked nervy and under pressure on the day; the duo were quickly three down after four holes. To make matters worse, Lahiri was disqualified for one hole after absent-mindedly practicing a shot from a bunker. The duo won their first hole only on the tenth. Still, there was no delaying the inevitable and the team was handed a massive drubbing by Kevin Chappell and Charlie Hoffman who beat them by six holes (with five left to play).
When the Internationals captain Nick Price, who had already got a fair bit of criticism for picking Lahiri inspite of that infamous missed putt in 2015, insisted on Friday evening that Lahiri was just under pressure and would play much better over the weekend, it did seem like Price was sticking his neck out for the world number 68. As it turned out, the South African knew his player better than those on the sidelines, and Lahiri single-handedly denied the American squad an outright victory on the third day itself by pouring in two-back-to-back birdies on the final two holes on Friday. Playing with Si Woo Kim against Kevin Chappell and Hoffman, Lahiri slammed a 20-footer on the 17th hole to ensure that the duo carried a one-hole advantage to the last which they halved. That the Americans would win on Sunday was a given, considering the 11-point lead that the squad took was the largest in the history of the tournament. But it was a moral reprieve for the Internationals and certainly a big one for Lahiri who notched up his first points in the tournament.
It was a grim Sunday for the Internationals, but in an astonishing show of defiance the squad snatched 7.5 points on the final day to extract a modicum of consolation with the final score reading 11-19. Lahiri, for the second day in a row, launched a late charge to tie Kevin Kisner; two down with two holes to go, Lahiri holed a 12-footer to win the 17th hole and keep the match alive. He won the last to tie the match and take his tally to 1.5 (out of a possible two) over the weekend.
“I think on a personal level, I’ve done well and truly buried the demons from South Korea. For me, it’s really special to be a part of this team. I’m just glad that I was able to step up on the weekend to kind of repay Nick’s (Nick Price) faith in me. There was a lot of flak given to him and me coming into this event for that, but I’m happy that I managed to step up and perform,” said Lahiri.
Off the course, the event garnered some bad press with a number of commentators criticising the aggressive demeanour of American fans and some of the players. Audrey Leishman, wife of International team player Marc Leishman, wrote a blog post about the boorish behaviour. “There were many times last week that I thought about what the kids were seeing. The crowds booing for good shots and cheering for missed putts… Heckling a wife for her beauty and then her husband for his play. I was thankful my boys weren’t there to see the way people were treating their daddy. Their hero. My parents could simply turn the television off…” wrote Leishman. Her post quickly went viral with a number of players expressing solidarity with the sentiment, including Lahiri, who tweeted a link with one line: “Unfortunate. But true.”
While American fans have always had a reputation for going a bit over the top at team events, there was a silver lining to the affair, and it had to do with Lahiri. On the final hole, the Indian was faced with a three-footer to halve the hole. Déjà vu. Before Lahiri could line up the putt and presumably banish thoughts of that awful miss in 2015, Kisner picked up the ball and conceded the hole. It was a lovely gesture and one that exemplified the spirit that ought to have been more in evidence in the tournament. But Lahiri has buried the ghost of 2015 and will be on a high in 2018; here’s hoping the Indian can get that first win in the bag this season.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game