No one needs convincing about the depth of talent in Indian golf after back-to-back full-field Asian Tour wins by SSP Chowrasia, Rashid Khan and Anirban Lahiri
The figure on Rashid Khan’s first paycheck as a professional after finishing 42nd at the 2010 Indian Open was $7,125. “We had so much fun amongst ourselves on the amateur circuit. We were all such great friends. Everyone is so much more serious on the pro tour, just focused on their game, not talking much,” he sighed at the post-round interview at the Delhi Golf Club, before adding, “But it’s about time… I feel like it’s starting from zero again. I’m really excited! It’s time to play with the big boys.” Khan didn’t make any more money in 2010.
This year, so far, he has made $232,407. If the money he’s made in 2014 (with one month and four tournaments to go) is any indication, then Khan is pretty much a big boy himself now. He’s won twice on the Asian Tour this year. His first international victory on home soil—the SAIL-SBI Open—came in February this year. And last weekend, he tamed the treacherous greens of the Alpine GC in Chiang Mai to win the Chiangmai Golf Classic. Almost as heartening as Khan’s victory was the resurgence of one of the original stalwarts of Indian golf—nine-time Asian Tour winner Jyoti Randhawa, who finished runner-up at Chiang Mai. Considering that Khan only had limited starts on the tour after missing out on full playing rights after a not-so-stellar season last year, 2014 has been nothing short of a fairytale. It’s a smashing retort to his detractors who have long held that Khan’s diminutive physical stature and high ball-flight would restrict his winning capabilities to the subcontinent.
Khan’s win was a fantastic rejoinder to SSP Chowrasia’s win at the Panasonic Open at the Delhi Golf Club in the preceding week. Chowrasia, who has steadfastly insisted on honing his skills on the tough European Tour in spite of not having a full-coverage sponsor, hadn’t had a win since his biggest triumph—the tri-sanctioned Avantha Masters—in 2011. The Kolkata man doesn’t like his moniker—‘chip-and-putt-Chowrasia’—but it was again his trademark short game, which held him in good stead, as he coolly rolled in a 15-footer in a three-way playoff to win his third Asian Tour title. Again, second-place honours were shared by an Indian—Rahil Gangjee—who tied with Sri Lankan Mithun Pereira. It’s the first time in Asian Tour’s history that Indian players have taken the top two spots in successive weeks.
Chowrasia’s win was fuelled by copybook course strategy: there’s only one way to score well at the Delhi Golf Club and that is to keep the ball in play and eschew any heroics. “Chowrasia had been aligning his shoulder a bit left and that was leading to cuts and pulls. We focused solely on his aim and alignment when preparing for the Panasonic Open,” says Chowrasia’s coach Sundeep ‘Chimmy’ Verma. And while youngster Shubhankar Sharma—surely one of the most exciting talents to emerge on the domestic scene in 2014—wowed the galleries with his length off the tee and pretty swing, Chowrasia bided his time all week, hitting greens in regulation, and giving himself opportunities on the greens. No one has made a habit of coming out of nowhere after flying under the radar all week and winning golf tournaments like Chowrasia.
Gangjee, on the other hand, was disappointed at not being able to win what would have been his second Asian Tour title after leading for three days. “I knew the momentum would swing through the final day and I told myself to play normally and not worry too much about the leaderboard. I missed out on a couple of chances towards the end and that just took the game away from me,” he rued.
But the star of Indian golf, at least as far as 2014 is concerned, has been Gangjee’s best pal on tour (the two room together when on the road)—Anirban Lahiri—who now sits at a career high of 75th in the world and tantalisingly close to that hallowed top 50, which will get him an automatic entry into the Majors.
Lahiri, who started this winter blitz of Indian victories with his win at the Venetian Macau Open in the last week of October, had already added the CIMB Niaga Indonesian Masters to his kitty earlier this year. Apart from the clutch of wins, a spate of top finishes have meant that Lahiri has amassed no less than half-a-million dollars in prize money this year, propelling him to second place in the Asian Tour’s order of merit title. All three—Lahiri, Khan and Chowrasia—sit in the top 10 of the Asian Tour’s Order of Merit rankings.
Lahiri’s turning-the-corner year has certainly made Gangjee a happy man. Gangjee believes Lahiri is primed for great things. “A lot of guys come and go, but Anirban is here to stay,” says the Kolkatan. “He adapts well whatever he’s doing, wherever he’s playing, even in his eating habits! He has improved really fast. He’s intelligent and quick to pick up things.”
As this column goes to press, both Lahiri and Chowrasia are at Barcelona playing in the European Tour’s gruelling six-round qualifying tournament where they’re vying—amongst a field of no less than 1,000 golfers—to secure full playing rights. Lahiri, who is in the 11th position with one round to go, looks like a shoo-in to finish in the top 25 and secure his card. If he does make it, it might mark the Bangalore boy’s entry as a genuine title contender on the European stage.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game