If you’re reading this on Sunday morning, then I suggest you tune in immediately to the live broadcast of the final round of the CIMB Classic unfolding at the TPC Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (8.30 am onward; Neo Sports).
In a tongue-in-cheek editorial in The Indian Express on Friday, the writer noted that a picture is worth about 300 words. I reckon that word count goes up exponentially for a live broadcast.
In case you haven’t been following the exploits of Anirban Lahiri of late, then here’s what you need to know: at the moment that this column is being written, the Bengaluru golfer is leading the field by four strokes at 19-under-par after the culmination of the third round of the PGA Tour’s only tournament in south-east Asia. Lahiri was tied for the lead at the midway stage, but dropped a double bogey on the 18th on Friday to start the weekend two shots back of the defending champion—Justin Thomas—who’s seeking an encore to his only win on the PGA Tour. Prompting a comparison with his course-record-setting ten-under par on this course in 2014, Lahiri dropped an astounding nine birdies (offset by one double-bogey on the 12th hole) en route to a seven-under-par 65 in his third round on Saturday. The putting stroke seems absolutely sublime; mentally, Lahiri looks completely dialled in; and those wedges from 150 yards in have had a laser-like precision.
“I’ve been in a good frame of mind from last week, playing as I did (Venetian Macao Open). Thought I let one get away there and just trying to make amends for that,” Lahiri said after the third round.
The second-round leader, 23-year-old Thomas, lost his way on the front nine, but staged an unlikely comeback, birdieing the last five holes to salvage a one-under 71 to stay in the mix going into today’s final round. Sunday’s pairing will have Thomas teeing it up with Lahiri and Russel Knox—who shot a sparkling nine-under 63 on Thursday and added a four-under 68 on Saturday. Knox and Thomas trail Lahiri by four strokes going into today’s play.
I have to admit that I didn’t see this coming. Lahiri hasn’t really got into an extended groove in 2016. Not that he hasn’t done well: Lahiri has nearly won twice, finishing second-best twice—once on the European Tour (Hero Indian Open) and on the Asian Tour (Venetian Macao Open). He’s also notched up one top-10 on the PGA Tour (T6; Dean & Deluca Invitational) and amassed over a million dollars in earnings from his exploits on all three tours. But by his own benchmark, set in 2015, when he finished the season ranked 40th in the world, Lahiri hasn’t scaled the same lofty heights this year.
Earlier this month, watching him struggle with his swing at the BNI Indonesian Masters, it seemed like the Bengaluru pro was ready to take time out to work on his game. Specifically, to dust off the rust that seemed to have crept into his game after his return from a five-week layoff in August-September this year. For three-and-a-half rounds at last week’s Venetian Macao Open, Lahiri gave no indication that he was going to make a play for a title at one of his favourite hunting grounds in the world—the Macao Golf & Country Club last. Lahiri has had a string of successes on this course—he finished second in 2013; won the event in 2014; and finished runner-up again last year. Standing on the 12th tee it appeared that Lahiri was headed for his worst finish ever at the event when, suddenly, he flipped a switch. What followed was an astonishing run of seven birdies that got him into a playoff. He lost that, but the game was back, and the flat stick was on a roll.
Circa 2014. Lahiri won in Macao in September and then went on to win his maiden European Tour title—the Maybank Malaysian Open—in early 2015. He followed that up with a successive win on that tour: this time on home turf, to take the Hero Indian Open. Back to the present: he nearly won at Macao, and is now leading at the same course where he shot a ten-under-62 last year en route to collecting the silverware. “A ten-under 62 is possible here. Everyone is in with a chance. I’ll just have to go out there and keep making birdies tomorrow. I don’t think there’s any other way to do it,” he said after his third round. You do the math—Lahiri is the man to beat today.
Lahiri began the year on a high, ranked in the elite top 50 players in the world (40th). At the start of this week, he was ranked 83rd, up nine spots from last week, and a win here should put him firmly back in the top-50 in the world. It’ll also get him a full exemption on the PGA Tour all the way through the 2018-19 season; an invitation into the Hyundai Tournament of Champions; propel him all the way to the second spot on the FedEx Cup Rankings; give him the biggest pay cheque of his career—$1.26 million; and make him only the second Indian to win on the top-notch USPGA Tour. But I’m jumping the gun here. Let’s go watch.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game